Although China's leaders recognize that they must deal with emissions of climate and health-related pollutants, economic growth remains the country's highest priority. The state is a partner in most energy, and many industrial, enterprises, as well as the regulator of environmental issues. As a result, environmental controls are weak, and enforcement of standards and laws lacks uniformity. China's central Energy Bureau has only 100 full-time staff (compared to the U.S. Department of Energy's 110,000). Another result of the economic system has been to allow low-efficiency energy use with little, if any, economic penalty.
China depends heavily (about 70 percent) on coal for its energy. With energy demands rising, more coal production is planned at least until 2020. China produces about 35 percent of the world's steel, 50 percent of the world's cement and flat glass, and about 33 percent of the world's aluminum—all very energy-intensive industries. In 2007, China was the second largest producer of cars (passing Japan), next to the United States. On average, China uses 20 percent more energy per ton of steel and 45 percent more per unit of cement than the international averages. Because of the international nature of their market, China's leaders argue that pollution originating from these global industries should not be attributed strictly to China, but that end users are partners in degrading the environment.
The Chinese leadership has issued numerous statements recognizing the need for a change in course. Recent actions include the passage of the Renewable Energy Law (endorsing expanded use of renewables), the phasing out of export subsides for polluting industries, and the closing of illegal coal mines and some heavily polluting factories. Targets for energy efficiency have been established, but have so far gone unmet. The government has been unwilling to use significant financial tools to implement climate-related goals. The government controls the rates for commodities such as electricity, fuel oil, gasoline, and water, which all remain relatively inexpensive. Officials have rejected proposals to introduce surcharges on electricity and coal to reflect the true cost to the environment. China has also declined to institute other tax policies or market-based incentives or to accept mandatory limits on its CO2 emissions.
The per capita use of energy in China still falls far below that of most of the industrialized world; only about 15 percent of that in the United States. As citizens of China achieve the level of affluence of the industrialized world, they will invariably desire more amenities. Private cars, for instance, are increasingly common. To achieve parity in standard of living without greatly increasing their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions will be a daunting challenge.
See ALSO: Coal; Developing Countries; Glaciers, Retreating; Monsoons; Sea Level, Rising.
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Glacial Retreat on the Tibetan Plateau and Surrounding Regions," Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research (in press, 2007); Yao Tandong, et al., "Temperature Reconstruction Over the Past Millennium on the Tibetan Plateau Revealed by Four Ice Cores," Annals of Glaciology (v.46, 2007).
William F. Isherwood Chinese Academy of Sciences
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