Lambasting China over its emissions might impress the US but it could be costly for Australia | Frank Jotzo

In many regards, China’s climate action is stronger than that of Australia or America, at much lower levels of development

Visiting the United States, Australia’s prime minister demanded of China “participation in addressing important global environmental challenges” in light of its “new status and responsibilities”. As part of a broad call to expect more of China, the comments on environment caught attention as they were made at the time of the UN climate summit.

Pointing to China’s emissions growth as an excuse for lack of climate action in Australia was in vogue a decade and longer ago. Then, China’s energy use and carbon emissions rose sharply with its investments in factories, infrastructure and housing. But things have changed in China, and there no longer is a formal distinction between climate pledges from developed and developing countries. In many regards, China’s climate action is stronger than that of Australia or America, at much lower levels of development.

Do the PM’s advisers know? An up-to-date cheat sheet would read like this.

1. China’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuels use rose by just 2% over the last five years (2013-18), with all of that growth in 2018 after a four-year hiatus. That is a stark difference to earlier: China’s CO2 output rose 25% over the five years before that, and 62% the five years before that, according to data compiled by BP. In the US, these emissions fell by 2.5% over the last five years. In Australia, emissions from fossil fuel use rose by 3.6% from 2013-18, faster than the world average of 3.2%; Australia’s overall national emissions rose by 3.9% over the five years. Australia has nothing to brag about in terms of recent emissions growth.

2. The emissions pledges under the Paris agreement do not distinguish between developed and developing countries, in contrast to the Kyoto protocol. All countries are called on to act, and the vast majority of countries have pledged to cut or limit their emissions. China has quantitative targets. The principle of “common but differentiated commitments” applies, with higher expectations placed on more developed countries, but there is no formal distinction.

3. China’s main Paris target is to reduce the ratio of energy CO2 emissions to GDP (the “emissions intensity”) by between 60-65% over the period 2005 to 2030. China’s high GDP growth rates mean that absolute emissions are nevertheless allowed to rise, as they did until 2013. But the highly intensive growth spurt has finished, and emissions are likely to start falling before 2030, China’s target year for CO2 peaking. The reduction in emissions intensity of the economy from 2005 to 2018 was 47% in China, 23% in Australia, and 25% in the United States. We are taking the carbon dioxide out of economic growth, but not nearly as quickly as China.

4. We are far richer, and have much higher emissions per person. Emissions from fossil fuel use in 2018 were 6.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita in China, 17 tonnes in Australia, 15 tonnes in the United States and 4.5 tonnes globally. With all greenhouse gas emissions included, the number for Australia is 22 tonnes per person. GDP per person per year was about US$10,000 in 2018 in China and $55,000 in Australia ($18,000 and $52,000 adjusted for purchasing power).

5. China’s government intervenes to shift to a cleaner energy, industrial and transport system. Fighting air pollution is a top priority, and that also means lower CO2 reductions. Old power stations are replaced with more efficient ones and with wind, solar and nuclear plants; the fleet-wide efficiency of coal power plants in China is now far better than that in Australia. Inefficient industrial plants are replaced with higher value-adding activities, and the share of electric vehicles is rising sharply. Investment in greener kit is massive. A national emissions trading scheme is in preparation, though direct regulation has remained the mainstay of China’s policy approach.

6. All that said, China could do much more and move more quickly towards a lower-carbon economy. Heavy industries remain the backbone of the economy in many provinces, and building new coal-fired power plants means long-term carbon liabilities. And China continues to build coal power plants in other countries under its belt-and-road program. There is massive room for improvement.

A man works on a solar panel project in Wuhan, China.
A man works on a solar panel project in Wuhan, China, where the government intervenes to lower CO2 reductions. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China could and should strengthen its 2030 emissions target, as just about all nations should. This could well happen next year. If so, then surely Beijing will ask Canberra about their plan for stronger commitments.

Lambasting China goes down well in the US. But it could be costly. Australia is on track to be seen as being in lockstep with the US not only on security and other issues but on climate change, and that could come to haunt us. It must seem like we are asking to be left behind. And if the trade wars get worse, then carbon tariffs on climate policy laggards may be on the cards too.

For China, a low-carbon future is desirable not only because it limits climate change, but because it creates new high value-added industries. China is positioning to become a dominant supplier of clean technologies. It is already the largest producer of solar panels, and it sees huge opportunities in markets for advanced electricity grid equipment, batteries, electric cars and much more.

Decarbonisation of energy and industrial systems has started in most countries. It is happening in Australia and in the US, though driven more by technology than by policy. The governments of China and many other countries are actively going after the opportunities.

Australia should seek a big role in a global low-carbon economy. We could become an exporter of renewable energy and of energy-intensive products made from renewable power, and secure our role as an energy exporter in a world that will increasingly shun fossil fuels. To get to that position we’ll need to be seen as partners, pulling in the same direction.

Throwing barbs from the sidelines won’t get us there.

• Frank Jotzo is the director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University


Frank Jotzo

The GuardianTramp

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