Analysis: China’s dilemma in Durban

China has a key role to play in negotiations at COP17, with the potential to make or break any deal on the table. Ajay Gambhir, Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, analyses China’s negotiating positions ahead of the talks.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of the risks of developing along an energy-intensive, high-carbon pathway – one need only look at the myriad references to energy efficiency, renewable energy and carbon intensity in its 12th Five Year Plan. China imported more than half its oil in 2009, when it was the second largest oil importer in the world after the USA.

It remains highly reliant on coal, which accounted for over 70% of its primary energy supply in 2009. Air pollution from fossil fuel-based transport remains a major concern. A low-carbon, less energy-intensive pathway would provide China with several direct benefits including reduced expenditure on energy, cleaner air and greater energy security. In addition, such a pathway would have the co-benefit of significantly reducing China’s, and therefore the world’s, greenhouse gas emissions.

According to recent research by HSBC, China’s government believes climate change is increasing water stress, food losses and power cuts in a number of provinces. Global action on climate change should therefore be very much in China’s interests.

Strong negotiating position

Although China has so far only pledged to the UNFCCC a CO2 target for 2020 (and using an intensity rather than absolute level), voices from within China are calling for a look towards the longer term: for example the Chinese Academy of Sciences said earlier this year that emissions in China need to peak by 2030 in order to tackle climate change and break out of its energy- and resource-intensive growth path.

Nevertheless, China is arguably under little pressure to increase ambition on its own targets, or indeed state anything longer term, with continued intransigence in the USA and an apparent stasis in the EU over increasing its 2020 target. As such, China is likely to continue to push for increased commitment from developed countries, without needing to offer anything more of its own in the way of targets at this stage.

Investment in low-carbon pathway

Developing and adopting a broad range of low-carbon technologies at immense scale will be the only way that China can significantly deviate from a pathway which leads to around 15 GtCO2 of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

To put this figure in context, some analysis suggests that global greenhouse gas emissions should not be much greater than 20 GtCO2e by 2050 if we are to retain a good chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

According to forthcoming research by the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College (and several other recent studies on China’s potential low-carbon pathways to 2050) such technologies are likely to include hundreds of Gigawatts of installed nuclear, hydro, wind, and possibly also solar PV capacity, whilst on the demand side the achievement of world-leading energy efficiency in industrial plants, buildings and vehicles, as well as low-carbon vehicles and low-carbon heating/cooling across the country,  will be essential rather than optional.

If successfully deployed, this range of technologies could allow China’s carbon dioxide emissions to peak before 2030 and reach levels of below 5 GtCO2 by 2050 – a massive reduction compared to business-as-usual.

Many of the technologies that are likely to be central to reducing Chinese and global emissions require further efforts to develop and deploy them at scale, and here China could benefit from finance and technical know-how from the developed world. These include advanced nuclear manufacturing, elements of solar PV and vehicle battery technology development, urban planning for transport and buildings, and implementation of monitoring and regulation of energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances.

Mechanisms for change

Mindful of the costs and technical challenges associated with developing and deploying such a range of low-carbon technologies and measures, Chinese negotiators will look to ensure that in Durban continuing progress is made on critical elements of the Cancun Agreements, including the initialisation and capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund, as well as the clarification of the functioning of the Technology Mechanism.

Even without these elements in place, China has gained an important competitive advantage in the manufacture of several low-carbon technologies such as wind turbines and solar PV modules, and is deploying them at scale.

If China follows a low-carbon pathway, its technology development initiatives and large market can be expected to have a major impact on the global development, including cost reduction, of key low-carbon technologies. This may open up options that would not otherwise have existed for other countries.

Nevertheless a more international, collaborative effort on low-carbon technology is in everyone’s interests and the further that Durban can advance these initiatives, the better.

Ajay Gambhir is a Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, with a research focus on the impact of mitigation technologies and policies. He has previously held various climate change economist and policy roles in the UK Government and UK Committee on Climate Change.

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