from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The Chinese Energy Intensity Circus

October 06, 2010

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China has been much praised for its target of cutting energy intensity by twenty percent from 2005 to 2010. Indeed many of the measures it’s using to back that target up are impressive. If we’re being honest with ourselves, though, we need to admit that we have no clue whether the target is being met. Worse, we need to acknowledge that some of the steps being taken to meet it are downright counterproductive.

This past March, China announced that it had cut its energy intensity by 14.38% from 2005 to 2009. Several critics noted that Chinese energy and GDP statistics suggested that the cut had actually been only 8.2%. Now NDRC  vice-Minister Xie Zhenhua says, in a statement today, that the 2005-2009 cut was actually 15.6%. I hope I’ll be excused if, like the Chinese experts I’ve spoken with in the last week, I come to the conclusion that these numbers have become pretty meaningless.

The seemingly arbitrary revisions to the figures also reinforce the need for some sort of international process for reviewing countries’ emissions claims. This is what the Copenhagen Accord called “international consultation and analysis”. Yet reports from Tianjin indicate that China is trying to back away from that commitment precisely when it’s needed most.

Meanwhile, various sources are reporting that some Chinese provinces have been imposing broad blackouts as they seek to meet their own energy intensity goals. As one Chinese expert noted to me recently, this isn’t just ridiculous, it’s tragic. Chinese citizens are coming to identify energy intensity cuts with having to walk up thirty floors to their apartments when power to their elevators is randomly cut off. That does not bode well for the political support necessary for future reductions -- including continuing many of the smarter measures that China is engaged in right now.