China’s non-promise

Today China promised that it will seek to reduce the ‘carbon intensity’ of its economy – the carbon emissions per unit of economic output – starting from 2020.

Hooray, I hear the world shout. And endless editorials have already hit the newstands, proclaiming this a great day for humanity and an important step towards a successful climate conference in Copenhagen.

But this is a complete non-promise. Any economy undergoing development will start to eventually reduce the carbon intensity of its economic activity through basic processes of technological advance and cost reduction. So China’s carbon intensity would fall even if it had no environmental targets at all. All more developed countries have already done this. China has not in fact promised to anything other than what they were going to do anyway, which is pursue economic growth. Nor do they have much choice: having embraced capitalism, there is no option, especially for an industrially backward country.

Nor is it likely that this will do much towards solving the world’s environmental problems. Although it obviously makes a difference, its net effect will only be positive if China’s rate of economic growth (i.e., the total number of economics produced) is not so great that it completely negates the reduction in intensity per unit. But China’s growth rate has hovered at the 8-10% mark for decades now, and there is no realistic chance that it will reduce its carbon intensity at anything alike this rate. Also, the reduction is only relative to 2005 – a very high baseline. So even after 2020, it is highly probable that China’s carbon emissions will still be growing.

And up until 2020? Again, present growth rates – which do not seem to have been dented much by the current global recession – mean that China’s economy will have more than doubled in size. Given present carbon intensity levels, that means 12 billion tons of carbon. And after 2020, it will keep on growing. Given that the estimated sustainable level for the whole planet is about 20 billion tons, what satisfaction are we to get from China’s non-promise?

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