Smog blanketing China puts a focus on greenhouse gases

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HONG KONG -- Jiang Kejun may be one of the few Beijing residents who see a ray of hope in the smog engulfing the city. A researcher in a state energy institute, he is an outspoken advocate of swiftly cutting China's greenhouse gas output, and he says public anger about noxious air has jolted the government, which long dismissed pollution as the necessary price of prosperity.

The grimy haze blanketing Beijing and other Chinese cities comes from motor vehicles, factories, power plants and furnaces that also emit carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas from human activities. The widespread ire about air pollution has forced China's new leadership to vow firmer, faster measures for cleaner air that are likely to reduce carbon dioxide output, especially from coal, experts said. "The public concern about the air pollution has helped raise awareness about broader environmental problems," said Mr. Jiang, a researcher at the Energy Research Institute, which advises the Chinese government. "This will be a big help in pushing China."

Mr. Jiang is an unusual hybrid -- part policy insider, part maverick -- in a growing debate among Chinese officials, policy advisers and academics about how fast and far to limit greenhouse gas pollution, which now well exceeds that of any other country. The debate, increasingly vigorous but in typical Chinese fashion playing out largely behind the scenes, pits the demands of industrialization and urban growth against the realities of global warming.

Defying the habitual caution of government advisers, Mr. Jiang has developed a proposal to swiftly limit the growing volume of carbon dioxide that China produces from consuming fossil fuels, which constitute more than a quarter of the world's total such emissions. In his blueprint, China's emissions would reach a peak by around 2025, at least five years earlier and at a much lower level than many Chinese experts have said is possible.

"I'm not saying it will be easy, but it's feasible," Mr. Jiang said. "Time for effective action is very limited."

His plan appears far from winning government endorsement, but is "one of those trial balloons that wouldn't be floated unless there's serious discussion opening up about what China should do," said Barbara Finamore, China program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based advocacy group.

Chinese policy advisers have developed proposals to control greenhouse gases in the nearer term, government-sponsored studies show. They include a carbon tax on fossil fuels and, beginning in 2016, setting annual guiding limits for carbon dioxide emissions from energy use. China will explore expanding nascent local carbon credit markets into a nationwide plan starting in 2015, Xie Zhenhua, an official who oversees climate change policy, said in late July.

In part, China is responding to international pressure, as governments negotiate a proposed new global agreement on climate change, scheduled to be settled in 2015 and go into force in 2020. In June, President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping agreed to discuss how to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a potent class of manufactured greenhouse gases.

But domestic economic, energy and environmental worries are also forcing China's leaders to consider policies that could limit greenhouse gases, analysts said. The new leadership wants to reinvigorate the economy by reducing reliance on heavy industry that produces high amounts of pollution. Mr. Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang have vowed to clean up contaminated soil, air and water, and achieving those goals could also bring carbon reductions in their wake.

"Air pollution was the perfect catalyst," said Wai-Shin Chan, director of climate change strategy in Asia for HSBC Global Research in Hong Kong. "Air pollution is clearly linked to health, and the great thing is that everybody -- that's government officials and company executives alike -- breathes the same air."

There are, though, formidable obstacles facing proponents of rapidly cutting China's emissions. Robust economic growth remains imperative for leaders, who fear that slowing growth and rising joblessness would imperil the Communist Party's rule. China remains dependent on coal, the source of about 70 percent of the country's energy. And officials and companies in China are likely to resist steps they fear could jeopardize their industrial investments.

China has been the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide from fuel use since about 2006, when it passed the United States. In 2009, the Chinese government introduced a policy to reduce the carbon dioxide emitted in the production of each unit of economic activity by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2020, compared with levels in 2005. That means emissions grow along with China's economy, but at a slower rate than if there were no improvements.

Even with such efforts, China's size and feverish growth have pushed its emissions well past those of the United States. By 2011, China's carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels accounted for 28 percent of the global total, and the United States' for 16 percent, according to the Global Carbon Project, a consortium of researchers. The International Energy Agency estimates that China's emissions grew by another 3.8 percent in 2012.

world - environment


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