Thursday, July 9, 2009

China Surpasses US Auto Sales/Could Double Carbon Emissions By 2030

Today came news that China's auto sales rose 36.5 percent in the first half of 2009, surpassing sales in the USA.

This news reminded me of a recent article in Der Spiegel entitled: "China's Greenhouse Gasses Threaten to Double." The article summarizes recent studies showing that China's greenhouse gas emissions will, under optimistic assumptions, rise by 80 percent by 2030, a date by which numerous other industrialized nations hope to have reduced their emissions significantly.

According to the article, China, is the world's 4th largest economy (behind the U.S., Japan, and Germany). (Note that other estimates place China 3rd, ahead of Germany.) At the same time, China's economy is growing faster than those it currently trails, and rapid urbanization and economic progress will increase the demand for electricity (and automobiles!) by the average Chinese citizen. Currently coal-fired power plants produce 83 percent of China's electricity, compared to 48-50 percent in the USA. While China hopes to move to alternative fuels between now and 2030, the study estimates that, despite China's best efforts, coal will still provide 70 percent of China's much larger output of power by 2030. Even under this "rosy scenario," in which China successfully moves to switch from coal-based generation to alternative fuels, China's emissions will rise 80 percent. If China is less successful at steering its energy generation toward alternative fuel sources, it's Carbon Output could double.

The article should also serve as a reminder that China, and not the USA, is already the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. According to this report by the Congressional Research Service, China had already passed the USA in such emissions by 2005. See table 1 in the report.

The report also estimates that China's GDP is less than half that of the USA. Other estimates place it at about one third of the USA's GDP. Thus, China's output is much more carbon-intensive than that of the USA. Indeed, according to this story from NPR, China's emissions grew 14 percent in 2004, a gross amount equal to the entire emissions of Germany or the UK.

Some commentators like to blame the United States and other countries for China's increase in emissions, because we and others purchase Chinese products, thereby driving the Chinese economy. I doubt, however, that these same commentators blame countries that purchase US exports for American emissions. This is ironic, because, as just explained, U.S. firms employ far less carbon per unit of output than their Chinese counterparts.

So long as China continues on its present path, efforts by G-8 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have limited, if any, net impact on the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

N.b. The Photo of a Chinese Power Plant comes from Wikipedia and is subject to the GNU free documentation license published here: