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The Dependent Variable - How Ambitious Is China's Climate Policy

By Kasper Sulkjær Andersen
This article is a part of a master's thesis from 2013.

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As has been elucidated elsewhere85, China’s climate policy has changed significantly over the course of the three most recent five year plans thus conveying the impression of a more ambitious Chinese climate policy. It remains unclear, however, exactly how ambitious China’s climate policy is. From the perspective of the analysis, determining the level of China’s climate policy ambition is vital in as much as the extent of ambition gives a clear indication of whether China’s climate policy has qualitatively shifted or rather represents the status quo86. In other words, if China’s climate policy has not shifted then the analytical premise of the present study is fallacious. Therefore, the present section will serve as a prelude to the analysis proper87 by determining the level of ambition in China’s climate policy.

Building on the question above, is the development in China’s climate policy, in fact, qualitatively different from previous times. In other words, are the quantitative targets adopted by China in recent years only superficially ambitious or do they represent ambition proper? The remainder of this sub-section is dedicated to analysing whether the shift in China’s climate policy is, in fact, ambitious.

The difficulty with assessing the level of ambition in relative intensity targets88 are that they depend on several other factors for their calculation; most importantly on GDP. Some critics might emphasise that China’s focus on relative targets such as energy and carbon intensity are not as ambitious or demanding as the adoption of absolute reduction targets such as those undertaken by Annex I countries under the auspices of the UNFCCC. It is often heard, especially emanating from the West that China should undertake more ambitious climate policies i.e. strive for absolute reduction targets like the West. This tendency, however, for China ‘bashing’ (Gang, 2012:21-23), I would argue, is often guided by a misunderstanding of the nature of both absolute and relative targets and the respective tolls that either targets take on an economy. Somehow, absolute targets are seen as incorporating a higher level of ambition irrespective of other relevant factors. Most likely, this notion rests with the fact that under a relative reduction scenario countries are obligated to reduce emissions in accordance with a counterfactual baseline (BAU) development scenario and not an actual benchmark year, which is the case of absolute targets. Thus, a country adhering to relative reduction targets can keep growing its economy and keep emitting as long as the emissions do not exceed the margin between the BAU development scenario and the development scenario which is strived for89. Absolute targets on the other hand employ a benchmark year which is considered the baseline scenario from which countries must reduce their levels of emissions in the future. Thus, countries pursuing absolute targets, so the argument goes, have fewer degrees of freedom than countries pursuing relative emission targets due to the fact that emitting more is not an option for these countries. From this, it seems attractive to conclude that absolute targets are more ambitious, ceteris paribus, than relative targets. However, this would deemphasise the fact that the level of ambition found in emissions targets is wholly dependent on the country in question. When developed countries pursue absolute targets the reason is that their historical emissions actually make this reduction scenario much more favourable than pursuing relative targets due to the paradoxical nature of the principle that the more a country has emitted historically (i.e. prior to the benchmark year) the larger the emission quota assigned to this country. Conversely, the reason why developing countries pursue relative targets rather than absolute is that this leaves them with more room for manoeuvre in terms of accommodating the policies needed for growth.

Looking specifically at the targets suggested in China’s climate policy, it is possible to make comparisons across relative and absolute targets through the employment of econometric models. Stern and Jotzo (2010) have undertaken this work and their findings point to an ambitious Chinese climate policy or at least as ambitious as the US and the EU. By converting the absolute emission reduction targets of the US and the EU, respectively, Jotzo and Stern (2010) find that, in relative terms, these targets correspond to a 42 percent decrease for the US and a 39-46 percent decrease for the EU, which is almost identical to China’s 40-45 percent reduction target (Ibid:6781-82)90. However, particularly the US is generally not regarded as very ambitious in fighting global climate change so using this country as a benchmark of ambition might be misleading. Instead, speaking more to the ambition of China’s climate policy in recent years is remembering that China has already exhausted its easy avenues for quick energy efficiency gains91 (Lewis, 2011). The ‘low-hanging’ fruits have already been picked when the Chinese government decided, against the backdrop of the 11th FYP, to severely reduce the extent of major polluting industries. The potential for easy fixes is currently limited as further energy savings have to be realised through the regulation of already efficient small to medium size companies which is no easy task. The next step is a painful reorganisation of the energy structure away from a predominant reliance on low-cost coal towards investing in expensive renewable sources of energy. Thus, with this in mind I would argue that China’s climate policy is indeed ambitious (at least as ambitious as that of the developed world). However, couching the question in counterfactual terms could China’s climate policy be more ambitious? The answer to this question is affirmative. As Delman and Odgaard (2011:35) note in a 2011 research article on China’s climate policy (in Danish):

Selvom Kina således viser vilje, så er det kinesiske klimamål ikke så ambitiøst, som det umiddelbart lyder. Kinas BNP forventes at blive 3½ gang større fra 2005-2020 (…). Det afstedkommer en øget energiefterspørgsel, og hvis Kina fremover blot anvender den moderne teknologi på verdensmarkedet til at producere og bruge energien, vil det nyanskaffede og mere energieffektive udstyr næsten af sig selv sikre en opnåelse af klimamålet. Ifølge den kinesiske energiadministration vil Kina opnå en forbedret CO2-intensitet på 44% ved alene at videreføre de eksisterende politikker.

Thus, with the inclusion of Delman and Odgaard’s (2011) observation, the ambitiousness of China’s climate policy is likely to land somewhere in the middle. In terms of the question posed in the beginning of this section China’s climate policy exhibit simultaneous signs of superficial ambition mixed in with ambition proper. Particularly, the 2009 goal of reducing emission intensity by 40-45 percent by 2020 indicates a high level of ambition especially when taking into consideration that the potential for quick and easy fixes have been largely exhausted. Also, the sheer fact that environmental and climate related targets account for an increasingly large share of the overall goals in recent FYPs (Ibid) points towards a China taking climate related issues very seriously. However, on the other hand, the fact that China is investing in new energy-saving technology makes the feasibility and costs of achieving its climate targets less arduous than would otherwise have been the case.

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Posted by branner on 24. May 2014, 17:07 0 comment(s) · 1436 views

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