China Reveals Goals To Cut Carbon Emissions

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The Chinese government has announced plans to slow its greenhouse gas emissions, but the formula allows emissions to rise as China's economy expands. China already leads the world in greenhouse gases. The announcement raises questions of how effective the plan will be on cleaning up earth's atmosphere.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee is celebrating the holiday today. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

China is giving some indication of just how far it's willing to go to fight global warming. The Chinese government announced a plan to slow the growth of China's carbon emissions, which are linked to climate change. China will slow their growth but not actually cut those emissions. And this announcement comes just weeks before the Copenhagen talks on climate change that take place early next month.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Beijing to talk about this. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN: Hi, Steve, nice to be with you.

INSKEEP: What's it mean to slow China's growth in emissions rather than cut them?

KUHN: Well, China's plan calls for a cut in what's called carbon intensity and that means the amount of greenhouse gases they emit as measured against economic output. And because China's economy is growing at a robust rate, it could rise. For example, it could grow fourfold in the coming decades and that means that emissions could more than double.

INSKEEP: Let's talk this through so that it's clear. China is saying the average Chinese person or Chinese business will be using energy more efficiently if this plan becomes real, but still because China's economy is growing and when the economy grows, you use more energy, China will pollute more than ever before.

KUHN: Well, we have to see what China's actual growth levels are. Now there's two things at stake here. One is how much energy they use to produce that economic growth, and the other part is how much carbon they emit to get there. They are managing to use less energy, but because they are so reliant on coal and because they are in a phase of heavy industry right now - emitting an awful lot of carbon, and that is probably set to continue.

INSKEEP: Is there something of a shell game going on here, then?

KUHN: Well, a lot of environmental groups think that this target is not so ambitious. A lot of people say that actually China's carbon intensity has been declining anyway, so this is just following a trend. But I think we have to say that, you know, first of all, it's going to require some doing on China's part to fulfill these goals. They are going to have to burn cleaner coal. They are going to have to introduce more renewable energy sources like wind and solar and ramp up public transportation. I see the problem as being at the local level. A lot of inland places in China really don't have much industry. And they are going to be going in heavy on infrastructure building, buying cars, building homes, producing steel and cement. And these are the things that emit a lot of carbon.

INSKEEP: Anthony Kuhn in Beijing, I want to play you a piece of tape. This is tape from Steven Chu, the American energy secretary, who visited China earlier this year and came away, he said, very impressed with China's efforts to capture wind and solar energy, cleaner forms of energy.

Secretary STEVEN CHU (Department of Energy): China is ahead in certain aspects. They want very much to expand their homegrown wind capacity to develop those exquisitely efficient turbines. They are very serious about developing photovoltaic technology. And so they are looking at this, and they are spending of order $12 million an hour to generate alternative and cleaner forms of energy.

INSKEEP: How do we match up that picture of a China that's very active in this area with this other picture of China, Anthony Kuhn, that may not be doing very much at all?

KUHN: I think Secretary Chu and people like that come to Beijing and they speak to China's leaders and they sense a real commitment to reduce emissions, and that is a turnaround from five years ago. Five years ago, first of all, it's the measuring point. They're measuring cuts in carbon intensity as measured against 2005 levels, and that was really the year that they decided they're going to have to start introducing curbs on emissions.

Not because of Copenhagen, not because of global warming, so much as concerns about energy security and pollution. But as I said, you know, this commitment at the central government level is very different from the reality in the inland poorer provinces, places that need to ramp up industry.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Beijing. Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve.

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