A new paper finds that China's new efforts to price carbon could lower the country's carbon dioxide emissions significantly without impeding economic development over the next three decades.
But the authors leave out one important reason; the Chinese have never once been honest about their emissions, and with their economy in free fall the last thing they intend to do is start being environmentally responsible now. They bullied American President Barack Obama into limiting American emissions while insisting their own had to remain unchecked, and numerical models which find they can reduce emissions and grow are based on the flawed assumption that they will accurately report coal use now, when they never have.
Yet with major nations cutting emissions, thanks primarily to breakthroughs in natural gas and exporting a lot of jobs to Asia, there may be a peak in CO2 in the year 2020. China only has a free pass to pollute in unlimited amounts until 2030, so the country's emissions should peak then, according to the scholars doing the estimates. Except it is a communist dictatorship, if they change their minds in 2030 the United Nations will do nothing.
The Chinese do not intend to stop growing just because Western nations feel guilty about pollution, they intend to be a "well-off society" by 2050 and, as Europe and America have shown, manufacturing is the way to do it.
"Using carbon pricing in combination with energy price reforms and renewable energy support, China could reach significant levels of emissions reduction without undermining economic growth," says Valerie Karplus, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a co-author of the new study.
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When it comes to China, economists make the opposite argument they make about the United States, where they believe government should control wealth. In China, the academics argue, charging for emissions will paradoxically lead to more growth. China committed to a goal of making non-fossil fuel sources account for 20 percent of its energy use by 2030 while they forced President Obama to agree to cut American total CO2 emissions about 26-28 percent by 2025, in comparison to 2005 levels. That means China could grow a lot, and as long as 20 percent of it is nuclear or solar, they hold up their end of the agreement.
In turn, that bilateral agreement has been widely credited with paving the way for the larger set of carbon-reduction pledges agreed to globally at the U.N. Climate Change Conference held in Paris in late 2015.
The study uses a model of China's economy and energy output, called C-GEM, developed by scholars at the Tsinghua-MIT China Energy and Climate Project.
Valerie Karplus, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a co-author of the new study in the journal Energy Economics,
served as director of that project from 2011-2015.
The model compares and contrasts two main paths that China's energy consumption could take: One, which the paper calls the "Continued Effort" scenario, is a business-as-usual trajectory. The other, based on China's announced reforms and environmental initiatives, is called the "Accelerated Effort" scenario. In the "Continued Effort" scenario, China's carbon emissions would not level off until around 2040, ten years later than in the "Accelerated Effort" scenario, and at a level 20 percent higher.
The model outlines some additional broad contours of China's energy future given the more stringent set of policies. Coal would drop sharply as a source of primary energy, or raw fuel, from around 70 percent in 2010 to around 28 percent in 2050.
Karplus readily acknowledges that with any energy and economic modeling of this scale, many uncertainties remain. Still, she thinks it is clear enough that the "Accelerated Effort" scenario for China would produce a significant reduction in China's emissions.
"You can have some confidence in the relative numbers despite the huge uncertainties, if you look at the two cases," Karplus asserts. "The value in this exercise is in its ability to look at alternative levels of policy effort and the relative impacts those would have."