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GDP, energy consumption, 
and CO2 emissions in China (recasturumqi.azurewebsites.net)
GDP, energy consumption, 
and CO2 emissions in China (recasturumqi.azurewebsites.net)

Climate Change

China’s 21st Century Dilemma: Development and Carbon Emissions

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” That’s the paradox gripping China, the world’s most populous nation. A new seven-year study by researchers from the University of East Anglia relates China’s carbon dioxide emissions to the country’s accelerating economic growth. The results, published today in Nature Climate Change, illustrate the dilemma of development and carbon emissions reduction clearly. Unfortunately, it’s typical.

CO2 emissions in developing vs. developed countries, 1990-2010 (ifpri.org)

Along with adopting other environmentally sound measures recently, China has pledged to reduce its carbon intensity by up to 45% from the 2005 level by 2020. The new research by Professor Dabo Guan, who teaches climate change economics at UEA’s School of International Development, and his international research team shows how carbon efficiency has improved in nearly all Chinese provinces.

GDP, energy consumption,  
and CO2 emissions in China (recasturumqi.azurewebsites.net)However, economic growth may have taken a perverse toll on the country’s ability to meet its carbon pledges. (See graph at right.) The country’s booming economy has prompted CO2-emitting industries such as mining, metal smelting, and coal-fired electric power generation to expand. Unfortunately, the financially beneficial industrialization also resulted in growth of carbon intensity by 3% during the study period.

Other observations:

  • China’s annual GDP, fattened by the construction of railroads, highways, power grids, and housing, grew at least 8% per year over the past decade.
  • Official Chinese statistics for the first half of 2014 show an encouraging 5% decrease in carbon intensity, the most significant drop in many years.
  • The nation’s 30 provinces differed widely in terms of GDP and environmental advances.
  • In the development and carbon emissions pattern, new, less wasteful technologies helped most provinces boost their carbon efficiency, but often emissions-intensive capital projects offset those advances.
  • The most marked improvements occurred in (1) economically advanced coastal areas and (2) heavily industrialized inland regions.

Professor Guan sums up this bipolar nature of China’s national development and carbon emissions reduction:

“Capital investment creates a market demand for the large-scale production expansion of cement, steel and other highly emission-intensive processed materials, and the associated electricity generation to support their production. China’s national government sets both climate and economic targets and uses these criteria in evaluating performances and promotion of local government leaders.”

China’s apparent attitude toward priority of goals differs little from that of other mega-industrial states in the past, and too many of them in the present. Says Guan, of the two national targets–development and carbon emissions reduction–GDP always comes first. His bottom line: China must balance economic growth with emission-intensive capital investments.

The research was partly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council’s Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the University of Leeds.


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Written By

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."

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