China wrestles with carbon footprint

The U.S. and China collectively emit over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, so relations between the two nations are rightly seen as central to a new global climate treaty. After a visit this week from Todd Stern, the United States’ top climate negotiator, China declared it would not accept binding emissions reduction targets at this time, a position Stern accepts as reasonable. There are plenty of arguments for why China should agree to a binding target — most obviously the fact that it is now the world’s largest source of carbon emissions — and no doubt there will be a lot disappointment with both China’s announcement and Stern’s acceptance of it.

The silver lining is that China is not exactly lying down on the job. The Chinese have already instituted an impressive array of green policies, and are maneuvering to position themselves as leaders in a low-carbon economy. A few of the highlights:

**Reducing energy intensity**

China has a goal to reduce energy intensity (the amount of energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product) by 20% of 2005 levels by 2020. Officials have drafted specific energy intensity reduction goals for each province and major city, and the bureaucrats in charge of these areas aren’t eligible for promotion unless the goals are met. The intensity target is the centerpiece of a broader set strategies to encourage energy efficiency across the nation, from setting energy efficiency benchmarks for major polluting industries, to phasing out small and inefficient power plants, to implementing building codes that require new buildings to be 50% more energy efficient than the current average.

**Renewable energy**

China has set aggressive targets for increasing wind, solar, biomass, and hydro power over the next ten years. By next year, 10% of the country’s energy is supposed to come from renewable sources, increasing to 15% by 2020. China is also expected to unveil a half trillion dollar stimulus package in the coming weeks focused solely on energy development over the next decade. This package includes a handsome investment in renewables.

**Energy Grid**

China is set to unveil plans to build a national smart grid by 2020. ‘Nuff said.

**Automobiles**

China is considering a proposal to increase its current fuel economy standard of 36.7 miles per gallon to 42.2 mpg by 2015, which either way means China will have a fuel standard that exceeds the Obama Administration’s newly proposed U.S. standard of 35.5 mpg by 2016. China also plans to increase its production of hybrid vehicles to 500,000 annually by 2011 (up from just 2,100 in 2008), and correspondingly will step up development of a pilot charging station network in major cities.

**Public Transportation**

China’s plans for its rail system are truly staggering. By 2020, the country will expand its already massive railway system from 78,000 km to 120,000 km, including 13,000 km of high speed rail and an expansion of urban rail transit system that will earn China the distinction of the largest intra-city urban rail network in the world.

Despite all of this progress, China has a long way to go. A majority of the country’s waterways are horribly polluted, and the air quality in most of China’s cities wouldn’t be considered safe in Europe or America. Still, the U.S. could take some lessons from China about walking the walk. China probably won’t come anywhere near a new global climate treaty unless we take the lead.

Hat tip: information about China’s clean energy plans come from both Grist and the Center for American Progress.

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nicole