China’s surprising leadership in capping carbon pollution

In July, China became a surprising leader in climate change policy by announcing plans to put a cap on carbon pollution. In a letter made public last week, China’s political leaders in Beijing requested further progress towards these goals. As Point Carbon reports,

China has told seven cities and provinces that will host pilot emissions trading schemes to impose absolute caps on emissions and draw up allocation plans as soon as possible, in a bid to launch the markets in 2013 as planned.

The letter reveals two important trends. First, the Chinese government has requested absolute carbon caps, “dismissing an earlier proposal to launch markets based on carbon or energy intensity.” An intensity target determines the maximum level of China’s emissions by a ratio of carbon pollution per unit of GDP, so emissions can continue to grow as long as China’s economy grows. In contrast, an absolute carbon cap mandates that Chinese carbon pollution must not exceed a maximum level per year.

Further, the letter indicates that China has not slowed its ambitions for a functioning cap on carbon pollution as soon as possible. After testing various policy designs in the seven pilot provinces, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases plans to implement a nationwide carbon pollution cap by 2015. Their plan for 2015 appears to blend the initial predictability of a carbon tax with the economic flexibility of a cap-and-trade policy. China already invests about  $51 billion into clean energy subsidies (more than 20% of the world’s total), and its latest Five Year Plan calls for installing over 70 GW of new wind power.

China aims to cut the carbon intensity of its economy 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and capping carbon is the most efficient, effective way to achieve such reductions.

Why is China taking such leadership on climate issues? As reported by Reuters,

Global warming threatens China’s march to prosperity by cutting crops, shrinking rivers and unleashing more droughts and floods, says the government’s latest assessment of climate change, projecting big shifts in how the nation feeds itself.

And given the increasing importance of stopping climate change to African leaders, some have suggested that China’s efforts to reduce such pollution will improve its reputation and standing in Africa. In the past decade, China has increased the value of its trade with Africa twelve-fold: from $10 billion in 2000 to $127 billion in 2010.

In short, change is absolutely necessary.  The Chinese government’s 710-page “Second National Assessment Report on Climate Change” is filled with nearly endless predictions of the effects of unabated climate change. A few examples selected by Reuters:

  • Assuming no measures to counter global warming, grain output in the world’s most populous nation could fall 5 to 20 percent by 2050.
  • Climate change will lead to severe imbalances in China’s water resources within each year and across the years. In most areas, …floods and droughts will become increasingly frequent.
  • Under one scenario of how global warming will affect water availability, by 2050 eight of mainland China’s 31 provinces and provincial-status cities could face severe water shortages — meaning less than 500 cubic meters per resident — and another 10 could face less dire chronic shortages.
  • Since the 1950s, over 82 percent of glaciers have been in a state of retreat, and the pace has accelerated since the 1990s. [China’s water supply relies heavily on glaciers in Tibet and nearby areas that feed major rivers.]
  • In the 30 years up to 2009, the sea level off Shanghai rose 4.5 inches; in the next 30 years, it will probably rise another 4 to 6 inches.
  • China’s efforts to protect vulnerable coastal areas with embankments are inadequate, … noting their vulnerability to typhoons and flood tides that global warming could intensify.

Facing such dire threats, it’s obvious why China has taken action to serve its own interests and help stop global warming. Especially since caps on carbon pollution have consistently been shown (PDF) to have minimal costs (PDF), and more often produce significant (PDF) economic benefits.

What’s harder to understand is why the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases — the United States — has allowed its global leadership to languish.

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