Economists Say China Has Turned the Corner on Planet-Warming Emissions — China Insists It Hasn't

A study by economists at the London School of Economics suggests China's emissions may have peaked in 2014 — sixteen years ahead of China's pledge.
March 8, 2016, 11:05pm
Photo by Diego Azubel/EPA

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For the world's largest producer of greenhouse gas, a possible drop in emissions would seem to be welcome news. But China has been swift to deny studies that suggest its output of carbon dioxide has already peaked.

As part of last year's Paris climate accord and an independent agreement with the United States, China pledged to level off its CO2 emissions by 2030, and strive to do so earlier. The country's first-ever plan to cap output of the gas driving climate change was greeted as ambitious. But a growing body of research suggests that, like the corner pizza place saying your pie will take an hour, this deadline may overestimate the time required for delivery.

Chinese carbon emissions are projected to remain relatively flat in the coming decades "and are likely to peak at some point in the decade before 2025," according to a London School of Economics (LSE) study. In fact, the study says, it's possible that Chinese emissions may have reached their high point in 2014, and "will fall modestly from now on."

China disagrees.

"You asked whether our emissions had peaked in 2014 — certainly not. In fact, our carbon dioxide emissions are still increasing," Chinese climate change envoy Xie Zhenhua said.

While this point is in contention, the dramatic slowing of growth in China's largely coal-fueled energy market is not. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows the country to have nearly tripled its energy consumption while rapidly industrializing and urbanizing between 2000 and 2013. In those years, energy use from dirty coal power plants increased more than 8 percent each year, while the country's gross domestic product averaged double-digit growth.

But since 2013, this growth has stalled, a fact that Fergus Green, lead author of the new study, said gives the world a fighting chance of preventing catastrophic climate change.

"We're no longer in this kind of nightmare scenario where, if China's emissions continue growing at the rate they grew during the first decade of the century, then it would be very, very difficult for the world to respond adequately to climate change," said Green, a PhD candidate at LSE.

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The 2030 deadline was set based on emissions data from this intense decade of growth, during which China became the world's largest producer and consumer of coal. Burning coal results in significantly more carbon emissions than other fuels, and Green pointed to China's different economic realities before and after 2013 as explanation of the gap between the country's Paris pledge and his study's projections. The study, which is coauthored by prominent LSE economist Nicholas Stern, contends that this much slower economy represents a "new normal" for China, and as growth has slowed, so has the demand from energy intensive sectors like steel and construction.

In an effort to curb overproduction and shift to a more consumer-driven economy, China announced last week that it would cut 1.3 million employees from the state-run coal sector and another 500,000 from steel. These mass layoffs are likely to prove politically challenging as local authorities with vested interests in the coal industry push back against the China's central government. There is no timeframe for the layoffs, but the country's aim is to cut 500 million tons of coal production capacity while shifting to 20 percent non-fossil fuel energy by 2020.

All of this leads Green and Stern, to characterize the 2030 deadline as a "highly conservative upper limit from a government that prefers to under-promise and over-deliver."

Other recent studies of China's economy also suggest that growth in emissions will be far more modest in the coming decades than the pre-2013 data would suggest.

In anticipation of countries shifting to cleaner energy sources, the Paris climate agreement requires that member states reevaluate their emission-reduction goals every five year. This "stocktaking" process, whereby goals can be ratcheted up, was a primary sticking point in Paris, and at China's insistence countries are urged, but not required, to adjust their targets based on reevaluations.

Alex Wang, who studies Chinese environmental law at University of California Los Angeles, expressed some skepticism that 2014 would mark the peak of Chinese CO2 output, but he agreed that emissions could be capped well before the present deadline.

"The overall take-away is that China's own 2030 target of peaking is most likely conservative, and much more can be done in China to make the peak as early as possible," he said.

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Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg