Navigant Research Blog

China Makes Strides to Curb Carbon Emissions

Marianne Hedin — April 26, 2013

China has now outpaced the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG).  With a power sector that relies heavily on coal and continued aggressive construction of coal-fired power stations, the country currently accounts for almost 50% of global coal consumption.  According to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, China’s carbon emissions increased 9% in 2011 to 7.2 tons per person.   This figure is only slightly less than the European average of 7.5 tons – though significantly less than the average American at up to 17.3 tons per person.

Realizing the need to address the country’s serious GHG emissions problem – especially with record smog levels in Beijing – the Chinese government is taking a number of steps.  It plans to add 49 GW of renewable energy capacity this year and develop an energy plan with the goal of gradually transitioning from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, such as hydropower and intermittent resources like wind and solar power.  In 2012, about 15 GW of wind and 3 GW of solar energy capacity were added.

New Lows

Most noteworthy is the government’s effort to curb CO2 emissions by initiating a new carbon emissions trading pilot scheme.  It is set to launch seven such pilots in various cities and provinces this year that are expected to eliminate at least 700 million tons of annual emissions.  The first pilot will be kicked off on June 17 in Shenzhen (southern China) to initially include 635 companies that were responsible for 38% of the city’s total GHG emissions in 2010.  This pilot scheme will create the second-largest carbon trading scheme in the world, after the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).  Beijing and Shanghai may soon follow suit, though neither city has scheduled a launch date yet.

It remains to be seen if the Chinese carbon trading program will be as successful as the EU ETS scheme, which has indeed reduced carbon emissions since it was initiated in 2005.  But will China, like the EU, eventually face the challenge of a growing surplus of allowances?  Recently, the European Parliament proposed to delay the release of 900 million CO2 emission permits in order to stop over-flooding an already saturated market (mainly caused by the economic recession, which has depressed emissions more than anticipated) – a decision that was narrowly defeated soon thereafter in a parliamentary vote because of fear of raising costs for businesses in a sluggish economy.  Earlier this year, permits traded at below €3 ($3.90) a ton – compared to €7 ($9.10) a ton last year and €25 ($32.50) a ton in 2008.  Shortly after the vote, carbon allowances dropped to €1.70 ($2.20).  It is clear that carbon trading can be fraught with problems, and the Chinese market will undoubtedly face its own unique issues in the years ahead.  Still, China should be able to draw upon the EU’s experience and its hard-won lessons.

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