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Report from Cancun: China Emphasizes Energy Policy Progress

This post originally appeared on the ChinaFAQs website.

As the first week of negotiations in Cancun concluded, China has stressed its progress at home. That China takes the climate change issue seriously was the principal message at a recent Cancun event from Su Wei, the Director-General of China’s Climate Change Department under its powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and lead climate negotiator. Speaking at a December 1 joint Side Event with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) at the Cancun climate change meeting, Su’s main focus was a recently-released NDRC report on China’s climate change policy performance though the end of 2009.

The new report recognizes the impacts of climate change, not just in China where the focus is on extreme climate events, but also the risks to the poorest and most vulnerable countries. It highlights China’s commitment to a 40-45% carbon intensity per unit GDP reduction between 2005 and 2020, and it emphasizes the importance of comprehensive climate change planning including all major ministries with adaptation or mitigation responsibilities.

While a version of the report was circulated after the side event, it ran out so quickly that I was only able to access it on the web, where it is in Chinese on the NDRC Climate change website. NDRC generally releases an English language version, and when it appears on its website I will post a link to it in this blog.

The overall message was that China was close to being on track to meet its 20% energy intensity reduction target (2006 to the end of 2010), with the reduction through 2009 totaling 15.61%. This figure appears in line with the revisions to energy data that the Chinese Statistical Bureau (NBS) announced in July. (For a discussion of the revisions, see ChinaFAQs expert Nathaniel Aden of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s analysis). The NDRC report contains a couple of quite interesting charts that are probably readable by a non-Chinese speaker. On page 7 there is a map of how provinces are doing in meeting the 20% energy intensity target. Not surprisingly, the provinces having the greatest challenges are the least developed. It is worth keeping in mind that these provinces, while having a lot of energy intensive industry, actually use considerably less energy than the more developed coastal provinces that are doing better in meeting the targets.

The report also provides new data on closures of old and polluting plants, which is shown in graphical form on page 11. For those who might want to look without Chinese language – the four columns are, from left to right, iron, steel, cement and electric power, the first three in units of 10,000 tons and the last in 10 megawatts (or 10,000 kilowatts). The overall message from the chart is that in most areas plant closures actually accelerated in 2009. This trend has continued through 2010. While the chart shows four types of plants, the report lists closures of inefficient plants in other heavy industries, including glass and aluminum.

Su Wei emphasized the comprehensiveness of China’s low carbon effort, including reforestation and renewable energy development. With China’s rapidly growing wind market garnering global attention and very encouraging statistics on growth in solar power, it is worth noting that the largest portion of China’s non-fossil energy continues to come from hydropower (83%), with nuclear a distant second (9.6%). In the case of hydropower, this reflects both historic legacy (hydro construction goes back decades) and continued building, but as other fuels grow, the hydro proportion will decrease somewhat. In the case of nuclear it reflects as aggressive an approach to development as has been seen in wind, and one that began much earlier.

UNDP Beijing Resident Representative Renata Lok-Dessallien commented that the Chinese program is an excellent example of “mainstreaming climate policy” as part of overall economic and social developmental planning. In China this tends to be subsumed under the heading of the “scientific approach to development.” My colleague, Dennis Tirpak of the World Resources Institute, commended China’s efforts to “get prices right” with prices for electricity and fuel at or above world averages and to focus on industrial efficiency, in particular the 1000 Enterprises Program. However, both Tirpak and Martin Khor of the South Centre noted that the challenge continues to be enormous. While China’s per capita emissions are still well below those of the United States or Western Europe, they have been growing rapidly; total emissions in 2008 were 6.5 gigatons, more than double the figure for 2000. China’s efforts to control this growth are essential Tirpak noted, because this figure is also now approximately equal to half of all non-OECD emissions.

This side event was just one of a number of outreach efforts the Chinese are making in Cancun. While Bloomberg News is reporting that the Chinese have “turned the tables on the United States," in fact not just the media, but also the US delegation is reporting a friendlier approach from the Chinese. Difficult issues remain in the negotiations, but there are positive signs.

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