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Tough challenges for China (1)

China’s struggle to save energy and reduce emissions is shaped by the fluctuations of the world economy, writes Pan Jiahua, in the first section of a two-part article.

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The financial crisis has spread from the United States to the world. China, as a part of the world economy, has seen a major impact on its economic growth – and its energy-saving and emissions-reduction measures.

Historically, such crises have had a large negative impact on economic development and resulted in reduced energy consumption and pollution. China has set lofty goals for economic development, energy-saving and emissions-reduction; the measures in the eleventh Five-Year Plan have been strictly implemented, though the actual results over the past three years have been unsatisfactory. Although the economy has slowed since August 2008 and energy use has fallen rapidly, with energy-saving and emissions-reduction no longer such a problem, the effect is only temporary. As the economy recovers, both energy use and emissions will rebound. In the long term, economic growth is inevitable and China faces energy-saving and emissions-reduction challenges. China cannot lower its guard.

Since the Industrial Revolution, economic expansion and the burning of fossil fuels have caused massive increases in pollution. But economic cycles and crises cause fluctuations in that economic growth, and hence in energy use and pollution.

The changes in per capita greenhouse-gas emissions for certain nations since the mid-nineteenth century can be seen in Figure 1. Due to the quality of data from the nineteenth century means some historical details are lost, but from the early twentieth century records improve and the data becomes more accurate. Therefore, the data can teach us several lessons.


Figure 1: A historical comparison (1855-2004) of greenhouse-gas emissions per capita in various countries

Source: Pan Jiahua and Zheng Yan (2009)

First, a recession leads to a large fall in energy demand and thus greenhouse-gas emissions. Energy consumption plummeted in Germany and Japan at the end of the Second World War, with emissions dropping by around 80%. The end of the Soviet Union and collapse of the Russian economy caused energy consumption to drop 40% in 1990. In the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” after the Great Leap Forward in China, energy consumption decreased and emissions fell significantly. Energy crises in 1973 and 1986 also reduced energy demand and emissions in major economies. The Great Depression also saw energy use and emissions fall by one third.

Second, the more globalised a nation is, the greater the impact of a global crisis. Developing nations, which are less integrated into the global economy, suffer less than the early industrialisers, such as the United States and countries in Europe.

Third, although per capita emissions fluctuate with the economy, the overall trend is upwards. When a crisis has passed, emissions quickly rebound and hit new highs.

Fourth, per capita emissions are almost in direct correlation with development. As the level of development increases, so do emissions per head. Europe and the United States have higher per capita emissions than developing nations, such as China and India.

Fifth, when development reaches a certain level, growth in per capita emissions slows, stabilises and even falls. Per capita emissions in Japan and the United Kingdom have been stable for almost two decades, while Germany has seen 30 years of negative growth.

So, why does an economic crisis lead to energy-saving and emissions-reduction? Table 1 illustrates the changes in China’s energy consumption during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. Figure 1 shows how China’s per capita emissions peaked in 1997, falling until 2001, when there was a quick recovery. Analysing the data in Table 1 explains why: first, the financial crisis caused a fall in demand for energy. Growth in energy demand fell from 8.3% in 1995, to 4.1% in 1996 and 0.2% in 1997. At its lowest point, total energy demand had fallen by 9.3%, which led to a drop in pollution. Second, looking at energy structures shows that coal, the most polluting source of energy, was hit hardest. Negative growth started in 1997, with a fall of 15.7% by 1999. Cleaner sources of energy – oil, natural gas and hydropower, for instance – were virtually unaffected. Thus energy became cleaner overall, and pollution fell. Third, when market conditions worsened, low-technology, small, inefficient and uncompetitive enterprises failed first; larger, more advanced and more efficient firms were better placed to weather the storm. This lead to an overall increase in energy-efficiency and a reduction in pollution.

Table 1 Growth in energy consumption during the Asian Financial Crisis (1997-2000)




  Coal Oil Gas

Primary

energy

Total energy

consumption

1995 8.3% 8.0% 2.2% 9.9% 8.3%
1996 2.8% 9.9% 12.1% 0.3% 4.1%
1997 -3.0% 10.3% 12.7% 2.8% 0.2%
1998 -7.8% 1.1% 2.9% 5.6% -4.9%
1999 -15.7% 6.5% 8.0% -2.7% -9.3%
2000 -5.2% 7.9% 7.9% 9.9% -0.3%
2001 10.5% 2.5% 11.5% 24.1% 9.4%
2002 19.5% 7.4% 7.7% 6.8  

Source: China Energy Data Report 2004, LBNL, ERI/NDRC, 2006.

During a crisis, economic activity shrinks, demand falls and total energy demand follows suit. Thus a cleaner energy structure ensues. However, the demand for energy across different sectors changes in different ways: household consumption may change slightly, but not much, and the service industry is not affected badly. The largest impact is in the manufacturing industry, particularly raw materials and heavy industry. And while household and service sector energy comes largely from oil, natural gas and electricity, industry – particularly heavy industry – tends to rely on cheaper, polluting sources of energy, such as coal. Therefore, during a crisis the total energy demand falls and energy overall becomes cleaner.

NEXT: Can China meet its energy-saving targets?



Pan Jiahua is executive director of the Centre for Urban Development and Environment at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences


Homepage photo by Bert van Dijk

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

挑战

作者说的有道理,经济危机会使能源需求和污染排放暂时下降,但是总的来说温室气体和污染排放仍会恢复原有水平甚至增高,所以减排是大势所趋。对于中国,我想最大的挑战是怎么让眼里只有利益的生产商和只关心政绩的地方官员认识到减排的重要性并愿意去做,或者,退而求其次,让他们不得不去做。

Challege

What the author said is right. Financial Crisis will temporally reduce energy demand and pollutant emission, but overall greenhouse gases and pollutant gases will return to the original level or even increase. This means emission reduction is an unstoppable trend. I think the biggest challenge for China is how to let the producers who put profit first and the local magistrates who are only concerned about political achievement to realise the importance of reducing emissions and want to take action, or alternatively to make action obligitory for them.
Translated by Zhang Liang.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

发达国家更应减排

从图一可以看出,美国的人均排放量是中国的6倍之多,其他发达国家也很高。所以我认为虽然现在中国是温室气体排放第一大国,发达国家有着更大的减排空间。然而,美国人已经习惯了那种奢侈的生活,他们不愿意改变自己的生活方式,因此让他们减排恐怕也很难。

Developed countries should reduce their emissions first

Drawing on chart we can see that the US's per capita emission volume is six times as much as that of China. In other countries it is also very high. I think that this means that although China is the number one biggest emitter of green house gas emissions, developed countries have more scope to reduce their emissions. However, Americans are already used to their extravagent lifestyles and don’t want change the way they live. I am afraid therefore that it is going to be difficult to get them to reduce their emissions.
Translated by Zhang Liang.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

地方政府

地方官员们更在意的是上级的政绩考核。只有经济搞上去了,才能向上级有所交代。环境保护的口号虽然响亮,但实实在在的经济增长数字更加诱人。
问题的症结在于,环境指标还没有真正被纳入官员的考核机制。这样,一些官员为求一时之利,积极引进一些高污染、高能耗的企业,尤其是重化工项目,实际上是在拿当地人的健康来换取少数人的特殊利益。

Local governments

What the local government value more is the qualification assessment set by the senior officials. They work on economic growth to fulfil their commitment towards the senior officials. The slogans of environmental protection spoken outloud are of no comparison to the attractiveness of economic growth. The crux of the matter is that, environmental indicators have not become part of the qualification assessment for officials. Therefore in the pursuit of short-term interests, some officials tend to approve highly polluting enterprises who are high energy consumers. Especially for the heavy chemical projects, special interest for a minority is obtained at the expense of the health of the general public.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

愤怒

我觉得这十分可耻和虚伪,美国的人均能源消耗接近中国的六倍,却要求中国减少对能源的消耗。

Outraged

I find it scandalous and emtremely hypocritical that USA, which has a per capita energy consumption nearly 6 times of that of China's, demands China to cut back on energy consumption.