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Will China Overwhelm Us With Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Posted by Jim Gunshinan on August 18, 2010
Will China Overwhelm Us With Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Notes from Asilomar: Biannual Summer Study, Energy In Buildings, American Council for anEnergy Efficient Economy (August 15—20, 2010)

Tuesday Plenary: Is the Climate Right for Efficiency in China?

Summer Study participants were treated to two insiders’ take on energy efficiency in China.

Mark Levine was recently the director of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and is now working full time with the China Energy Group at LBNL, a group Levine founded in 1988.

William Chandler is an expert in energy and climate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as the president of Transition Energy and the co-founder of DEED China—private companies with energy efficiency investments in China. Chandler was a 1992 ACEEE Champion of Energy Efficiency.

Both Levine and Chandler provided lots of information about energy efficiency policy and reality in China—past, present, and future. But more important, they each shared a wealth of insight that only comes with a long history of lived experience interacting with people developing energy efficiency in China. Imagine the amount of time they’ve spent in airplanes during the past 25 years!

One insight from Tuesday night’s plenary is the extraordinary progress China has made since 1980 to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, and lower energy intensity in an economy that has grown by leaps and bounds. Between 1980 and 2002, China’s GDP increased by a factor of 8, while its energy use increased by a factor of only 3. Between 1980 and 2002 energy intensity, or energy per unit of GDP decreased about 5% per year. From 2002 to 2005, energy intensity increased about 5% per year, mainly due to a huge increase in the production of steel and cement. But energy intensity then began to decrease again, dropping 16% between 2005 and 2009.

Looking to the future, Levine outlined a likely scenario where China’s total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow, but then level off in 20 years or so, and then begin a slow steady decrease. But at its peak Chinese energy use per capita will stay well below that of the United States and below that of Europe. China’s emissions will not overwhelm us, according to Levine, because of several reasons, but mainly due to saturation in the appliance and transportation markets in China.

Chandler urged cooperation with China in regards to energy efficiency policy, and warned that a lack of cooperation, “I won’t do anything if you don’t”, will be a suicide pact. We need to better explain to the west China’s successes and commitment to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, encourage China to be more accurate and transparent with its energy and emissions data, remove barriers to business between the United States and China, and resolve diplomatically the rift in relations between China and other nations that are part of the Copenhagen climate agreements.

Can China do its part to mitigate climate change and obtain energy security for itself and other nations? Levine and Chandler both say, “Yes.” But only if the United States and other developed and developing nations do their part as well.

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