Why Did China Reject Binding Emissions Limits at Kyoto?

by Marlo Lewis on August 23, 2013

in Features

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Earlier today I received an email out of the blue from a Russian journalist inquiring what the impact on the Chinese economy might have been if, at the Kyoto climate conference of Nov.-Dec. 1997, Beijing had agreed to limit China’s greenhouse gas emissions and actually implemented such limits. Here’s the gist of my response:

The average emissions limitation for Annex I (industrial) counties under the Kyoto Protocol is a 5% reduction below 1990 levels during a 2008-2012 commitment period. China’s CO2 emissions in 1990 were about 2.4 billion metric tons per year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). China’s emissions in 2012 were 8.994 billion metric tons – 274% larger. China could not comply with the Kyoto Annex I target without de-industrializing its economy.

What about the impacts of milder versions of the Annex I target such as limiting China’s emissions growth to, say, 15%, 20%, or 25% above 2005 levels (the year Kyoto entered into force)? Even these ‘soft’ Kyoto targets, if actually implemented, would have devastated China’s economy.

A recent report (p. 16) commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy notes that the increase in China’s coal consumption more than tripled from 3.6% per year during 1980-1999 to 12.2% per year during 2000-2012. Oil and gas consumption also increased dramatically. According to the EIA’s country report on China, oil consumption in China increased from about 6.5 million barrels per day in 2005 to 12 million barrels per day in 2012 — an 84% increase; gas consumption increased from 2.0 trillion cubic feet in 2005 to 4.6 trillion cubic feet in 2011 – a 130% increase.

Yes, China in recent years has also made large investments in hydropower, nuclear, and renewables. Nonetheless, as of 2009, fossil fuels accounted for 93% of the country’s energy consumption. China’s economic development is overwhelmingly fossil-fueled.

China energy_consumption_by_type

How much did China’s economy grow during those years? According to the EIA’s International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013), Table A-3, China’s GDP increased from $5.3873 trillion in 2005 to $10.7359 trillion in 2012 – a 99% increase.

Unsurprisingly, emissions also grew rapidly. According to IEO2013, Table A-10, China’s CO2 emissions during the period increased from 5.490 billion metric tons to 8.994 billion metric tons – a 63% increase.

What do the numbers tell us? Although emissions intensity is declining, China’s economic growth is still strongly correlated with fossil energy consumption and emissions. Even a ‘soft’ Kyoto target limiting emissions to 25% above 2005 levels would have eliminated trillions in cumulative GDP since 2005.

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