The Chinese government is preparing to adopt its first programme to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming. Although some reports suggest the plan will not include quantitative reduction targets, a senior official said on Tuesday that the country would seek to reduce carbon dioxide emissions "by 10% over the next five years".
Several recent government reports, however, have underlined China's poor performance in meeting its own environmental targets (see China admits failure to make environmental progress).
The government's climate plan, expected to seek final state approval by the end of February, will set out its intentions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop green technologies. Lu Xuedu, deputy director of the Office of Global Environment Affairs at the Chinese ministry of science, told SciDev.Net that setting quantitative emissions reduction targets was "hard and unrealistic".
Yet Zhang Guobao, vice-chairman of the energy-policy-setting National Development and Reform Commission, told an energy conference in Australia on 13 February that over the next five years, "assuming an average economic growth of 7.5% per year, China's carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by 10%." Zhang did not specify whether the 10% goal would be per unit of national economic output or an absolute reduction compared to current emissions.
"Because we're a coal dominant country, we have to take responsibility for lowering greenhouse emissions," said Zhang, an unusual admission for a Chinese official. He added: "China plans to reduce its energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 20% by 2010."
In an example of China's difficulties in meeting the environmental targets it sets itself, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) announced on 9 February that, far from reaching its target of reducing sulphur dioxide emissions by 2.0% in 2006, emissions had in fact risen by 1.8% on 2005 levels.
The country also failed to reduce a measure of water pollution (called "chemical oxygen demand") by 2.0%. Instead, the index rose 1.2% in 2006.
Nonetheless, Fan Yuansheng, director of the pollution control department at SEPA, has said China will meet further sulphur dioxide and water pollution reduction targets in 2007.
Five year plan
Most attribute China's growing environmental problem to its booming economic growth. According to the International Monetary Fund, China's GDP has been growing steadily by about 10% every year since 2003. This surpasses the country's aim to grow at 7.5% per year, set out in its 11th Five-Year Plan, covering 2006 to 2010.
"It's almost impossible to reduce energy consumption within a short period while experiencing such a high economic growth rate," said Lu Zhongwu, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, speaking to the China Daily newspaper in November 2006.
China's growth is even outstripping its own capability to extract ever-increasing amounts of coal from its rich geological resources. A Reuters report from 6 February suggests that, despite being the world's biggest coal producer and consumer, China may start importing more coal than it exports as early as the end of 2007. So far, China has been a net exporter of coal, which is considered the least environmentally-friendly source of energy.
Despite this, a UN official in China recently said he doubted that nation would become the world's top emitter of carbon dioxide by 2009. In November 2006, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that China could overtake the US in this respect by 2009.
Khalid Malik, head of the UN office in China, said on 6 February that the IEA's forecast was based on old figures and that UN was working with the Chinese government on an update assessment of its emissions.
Malik was speaking on the sidelines of a conference launching a new trading scheme for carbon credits in Beijing. The scheme, a joint project between the UN Development Programme and the Chinese government, will compete with others in Europe and the US. It will seek to take a share of the multi-billion dollar global market which trades emissions credits granted by the Kyoto Protocol in exchange for investment in green projects in developing countries.
The UN expects China to account for 41% of all carbon credits issued by 2012, but a recent paper in Nature suggests that a loophole in the system has allowed investors to get rich without cutting significant amounts of emissions.
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