December 2, 2009

December 2, 2009 | Commentary on Climate Change

Reality Check on China

Q: As we get closer to the United Nation's conference on climate change in Copenhagen and nations begin setting their agendas, are their goals realistic? Last week, the U.S. and China each announced their emissions target goals. Are they big enough?

Throughout the global warming debate, there have always been those willing to put on an extra-thick pair of rose-colored glasses when it comes to China. China is going green, we are repeatedly told, and thus America needs to catch up in committing to reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The latest announcement, ahead of Copenhagen, that China may agree to first-ever emissions targets is the latest such instance.

It is time for a reality check on China before the American delegation puts its own proposal on the table in Denmark.

The reality is that China's carbon dioxide emissions will continue heading sharply upward. China is building new coal-fired power plants at a furious pace as well as expanding its coal mining operations. It is buying up fossil fuel reserves at top dollar all around the world. If the Chinese are really going to reduce emissions, then why continue to spend billions every year on stuff they'll soon have to stop using? The U.S. Energy Information Administration has looked beyond the rhetoric and assessed China's actions, and it projects Chinese emissions rising nine times faster than America's through 2030.

Nor is China denying this reality. As with past announcements from China, there is less here than some would like to believe. First, the targets are emissions intensity targets - emissions per unit of economic output. In other words, emissions can still go up as long as China's economy grows. Given recent growth rates, China's targets suggest little if any change from business as usual. China also made clear that its compliance is not subject to independent verification. To ask the question whether China would simply cheat if in their economic interest to do so is to answer the question. Further, despite holding $2.3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, China insists on developed world aid for its troubles, and in amounts neither the U.S. nor the E.U. has shown any willingness to provide.

On the other hand, President Obama's pledge ahead of Copenhagen -- a 17 percent emissions cut within a decade -- would not be a charade. If the U.S. were to ratify a treaty with this target, it would have the force of law, and the resultant energy price hikes would become a painful reality here for consumers and businesses. A Heritage Foundation analysis of similar energy rationing targets in the House Waxman-Markey bill (17 percent target for 2020 on its way to 83 percent by 2050) found higher energy costs for a household of four over $800 per year and an average of over 1 million net job losses. And all for emissions reductions that would be swamped by increases from China alone, not to mention other fast-developing nations.

Whether or not the pre-Copenhagen proposals from China and the U.S. create momentum for a major agreement, one thing is clear: they shouldn't.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ben Lieberman Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

First Appeared in Washington Post