Eye on the Prize:  China is Make or Break for Climate

November 23, 2010 | Breakthrough Staff,

By Devon Swezey, Breakthrough Institute

Were the European Union to call for a deeper cut in carbon dioxide emissions, it would do little to stem the unrelenting increase in global emissions and is unlikely to have any effect on the international climate negotiations, according to the International Energy Agency.

While Europe's negotiating position in international climate talks remains a target of 20 percent emissions reductions below 1990 levels by 2020, some have pushed it to target an additional ten percent reduction. The EU has long maintained that it would boost its target to 30 percent if other industrialized countries followed suit.

What is the significance of an extra ten percent reduction in EU emissions by 2020? Not much, according to IEA Chief Economists Fatih Birol:

"We estimate extending Europe's plan to cut emissions from 20 to 30 percent would roughly equal China's two-week gas output."

Could the 10 percent EU additional emissions cut really equal only two weeks of emissions in China? We checked the numbers on that (h/t Roger Pielke, Jr.), and Mr. Birol is indeed correct.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, EU-15 emissions in 1990 were 3,380 MMT. 10% would be 338 MMT.

China's total CO2 in 2008 is 6,533 MMT. 338 MMT is thus 19 days of China's total 2008 emissions. If China's emissions increased by 10% in 2009 and 2010 then the number is 15 days (or just about two weeks).

This reality underscores the scale of the global climate challenge, and affirms the vacuousness of the targets and timetables approach that currently governs the international climate negotiations. Efforts to decarbonize the global economy will live and die with China (and the rapidly growing energy demands of the developing world more broadly), and China's development will be powered predominately by clean energy only to the extent that those technologies become cheaper and more reliable.

A number of scholars, including those from the Breakthrough Institute, have communicated a new approach on global climate policy. With Cancun just around the corner, there's no better time for policymakers to listen.

See Also: