Emission challenges facing developing countries: The case of China

Chun Yu Jonathan Poon, Columbia University

The international community has been excited about the recent US-China Joint Announcement on climate change. Under this deal, China has committed to a carbon peak by 2030. According to the prediction by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the proposed emission peak is roughly associated with a 20 per cent increase in carbon emission from 2012 levels, to 12 gigatons in 2030. This corresponds to a 4˚C pathway, instead of the 2˚C agreed as the threshold to avoid dangerous climate change. Nevertheless, the commitment reveals the tremendous challenges facing China, and other developing countries in general, in abatement.

According to the Kaya Identity, which was originally proposed by the Japanese economist Yoichi Kaya, human-caused carbon emissions are the product of population, per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), energy consumption per unit of GDP (energy intensity), and carbon emissions per unit of energy consumption (carbon intensity). As developing countries will experience significant population growth and soaring per-capita income, there is intense pressure for them to improve their energy efficiency in order to meet any emission targets. By 2030, population in China is expected to grow to 1.43 billion people. Per-capita GDP is expected to increase by five per cent to seven per cent per annum.. Such an increase in population and income level means that leaders in Beijing ought to find solutions to lower the existing intensity measures by 60 per cent.

Improving energy intensity and carbon intensity is easier said than done, and the Chinese government has been working hard towards gain in energy intensity. Under the 11th Five-year Plan from 2006 to 2010, Beijing aspired to reduce energy intensity by 20 per cent. Top-down approaches employed include the Top-1000 Energy-Consuming Enterprises programme, which required the largest companies in China to reduce energy consumption by 100 million tons of coal equivalent (toe) in total; and the Ten Key Projects programme, which focused on energy conservation. Despite the efficient implementation of these massive projects, China unusually missed its target by delivering only 19.1 per cent reduction. A key reason for their underperformance could be the diminishing impact from further effort on conserving energy. In the following 12th Five-year Plan, China has lowered the energy intensity reduction target to 16 per cent.

Indeed, it might take China decades to gradually rearrange its economic structure such that it becomes less energy intensive, without creating shocks to the economy. As a result, China decides to work on carbon intensity and aspires to reduce the measure by 17 per cent under the current Five-year Plan. Compared to energy intensity, carbon intensity gears more towards the sources and production of energy. Currently, coal represents nearly 70 per cent of the total primary energy consumption in China. The huge dependence on the highly-polluting energy source is officially expected to continue. China cannot find an alternative source to meet its soaring energy demand at a comparable cost and scale. Achieving the carbon intensity target, thus, depends largely on the development and implementation of carbon capture and storage technology for its coal power plants. On the other hand, China could also accelerate its development on renewable energy and shale gas extraction. However, all these measures are extremely capital and technology demanding. Constraints from financial and technical resources are huge barriers facing China and other developing countries in combating climate change.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process has stated that the unique situations of developing states should be taken into account in any climate change agenda. With the rise of developing countries, financial resources might become less of a problem. Yet, the international community should consider establishment of an accessible and effective knowledge sharing platform, to ensure that technical issues are not be constraints in achieving emission reductions. Technology might not be capable of solving all challenges. But it is undoubtedly our last hope for containing the temperature increase to 2˚C from pre-industrial level.


Chun Yu Jonathan Poon is a graduate student at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York