China recovery pushes greenhouse emissions to global record

Paris targets under threat as forecast 2% rise follows three years of zero growth

Stronger Chinese economic growth will push global greenhouse gas emissions to a record high in 2017 after remaining flat for three years, dashing tentative hopes of a turning point in the world’s efforts to curb climate change.

A new report by the Global Carbon Project, an international research consortium, predicts that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry will rise 2 per cent this year. The report was released at the UN climate change meeting in Bonn on Monday.

The increase — which is largely caused by China and developing countries — suggests the world is straying further from the course set at the landmark UN conference in Paris two years ago. Countries agreed at the time to limit the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2ºC from the pre-industrial era. But scientists warn that the emission reduction pledges made by individual governments since then do not go far enough to secure that overarching goal.

“Emissions are following what countries have pledged — but what countries have pledged is nowhere near enough to meet the Paris objective,” said Glen Peters, co-author of the report and research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo.

This year’s rise is especially disappointing as it follows three years of almost no growth in emissions despite a world economy expanding at a steady clip. In 2016, emissions were flat even though the world economy grew 3.2 per cent. One explanation for the uptick is that China’s economic slowdown in the middle part of this decade was more pronounced than official figures suggested.

The GPC report concludes: “The world has not reached peak emissions yet.”

It finds that carbon dioxide emissions decreased in 22 countries accounting for 20 per cent of global emissions, but rose in 101 countries that together represent 50 per cent of pollution. China is predicted to see a 3.5 per cent jump in emissions in 2017. As the biggest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, China plays a crucial role in shifting the global trend.

Emissions began rising again in China this year, after the recovery in coal and steel prices last year heralded a more general economic revival.

The Chinese recovery follows a four-year economic slump lasting from 2012 to 2016 in the provinces of the coal-intensive North China plain, and the surrounding resource-rich regions including China’s coal-dependent neighbour to the north, Mongolia. Although the slowdown devastated Mongolia’s economy, it was generally not reflected in China’s official economic data.

The Financial Times has called into question provincial data across northern China during the period. Beijing has acknowledged that data were faked or inaccurate from Liaoning, an industrial province in the north-east, but has not revised its statistics from other problematic provinces.

The recent rise in China’s emissions adds weight to the idea that the officially unacknowledged economic slowdown translated into a flattening out of China’s carbon emissions, and therefore of the world’s. This is backed by flat or slightly lower production of coal, steel and cement during the period since 2012. Those industries contribute heavily to Chinese emissions of greenhouse gases.

Climate change negotiators had cheered the flattening of emissions, arguing that Chinese commitments to the Paris accord were responsible. However, the close correlation between Chinese emissions and economic activity in North China calls into question the argument that an authoritarian government can simply ordain improvement without outside oversight or the structural changes that reduce the incentives to pollute.

As emissions output has increased, Beijing has launched an unprecedented round of inspections and shutdowns of polluting factories and steel mills in northern China.

However, it has also bowed to the interests of its powerful coal industry by permitting heavily polluting coal conversion plants and switching some of its power generation capacity from coal to gas made from coal. This has the effect of spreading air pollution as well as unsustainably intensive water use from its wealthier eastern cities to its poorer inland and frontier provinces.

China’s commitment to the Paris accord anticipates that its emissions will continue to rise until about 2030, a projection derived from economic growth projections, the use of more hydropower dams and nuclear reactors, and assumptions that energy intensity will fall as the world’s largest economy matures.

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