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FactCheck Q&A: Will China have a 150% increase in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2030?

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, speaking on Q&A. Q&A

FactCheck Q&A: Will China have a 150% increase in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2030?

(The Conversation is fact-checking claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking. Viewers can request statements to be FactChecked via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email.


Excerpt from Q&A, September 28, 2015.

China from 2005, I think to 2030, will have 150% increase in carbon emissions with their trading scheme. We will have between a 26 and 28% reduction in our emissions on 2005 levels without a trading scheme under our current process. – Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, speaking on Q&A, September 28, 2015.

There are two things worth checking here: the source of Joyce’s figures and the appropriateness of comparing China and Australia’s projected emissions.

On the first: his quote reflects figures from a recent government report, but the projected 150% increase in China’s emissions is at the upper end of estimates. It rests on some radical assumptions about, for example, the pace of China’s economic growth.

On the second point: comparing China’s projected emissions output with Australia’s is like comparing apples and oranges. It tells us little about the wisdom or otherwise of introducing an emissions trading scheme in Australia.

Checking the source

Minister Joyce’s quote rests on figures from an August 2015 report prepared by the UNFCCC Taskforce at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. (The UNFCCC is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the arm of the UN responsible for global climate talks).

The report says:

China has announced it will reduce its emissions intensity 60 to 65% by 2030 on 2005 levels. This is projected to lead to a 150% rise in emissions by 2030.

Targets submitted by key countries, on a 2005 base. DPMC, CC BY

(By the way, emissions intensity is greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP).)

China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) pledge outlines its goal to peak its carbon emissions by 2030.

However, it requires a complex series of calculations and assumptions to estimate the emissions level at which it will peak. It’s worth comparing the 150% figure with a number of independent evaluations.

Analysts such as Climate Action Tracker predict that in 2030, China’s emissions will be somewhere in the range of 13.8-14.4 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (GtCO2e/year).

If this is compared with China’s 2005 emissions level of 7.34 GtCO2e/year (as recorded by a government information sheet published by the Department of Environment), this represents an increase of between 88 and 96% – well short of 150%.

If we assume, (as this US Congressional Research Service report has), that China’s 2005 emissions were more like 7.5 Gt CO2e per year, that would mean the percentage is even lower – and even further away from 150%.

Most analysts predict China’s carbon emissions will peak some time early in the 2025-30 window, with Carbon Brief projecting a maximum level of 12.7 Gt CO2e per year in 2027 – or around 73% above 2005 levels.

So the 150% estimate Joyce is quoting must include some radical assumptions about, for example, China’s economic growth.

An appropriate comparison?

Joyce then compares China’s projected increased emissions with Australia’s pledge of 26-28% below 2005 levels.

This is like comparing apples with oranges. China is a rapidly developing and expanding economy whose energy needs will increase markedly leading up to 2030, whereas Australia is a more mature developed economy with lower growth whose trajectory will be significantly different. For example, Australia’s demand for electricity has fallen since 2008 (although it has risen recently in some parts of Australia).

So it’s not surprising that under almost any policy regime, China’s carbon emissions will increase in order to meet rising demand using every possible energy source, whereas Australia’s energy growth prospects are more limited and indeed may flatline or even decline over the same period.

It is unrealistic to compare two vastly differing economies. The primary determinant of future emissions will be influenced mainly by the underlying future trajectory for each economy - and less significantly by the energy policy mix.

There are three policy levers that governments can use to address climate change: placing a price on carbon, incentive schemes (such as the Renewable Energy Target and Direct Action), and legislated emissions and performance standards (such as those employed by President Obama through Environmental Protection Agency regulation). Using all three levers together is likely to accelerate the rate of carbon emissions reduction, therefore buying time and saving the economic cost of climate change over the long term.

The current Australian government is using a single lever - incentives (including Direct Action and a scaled-down Renewable Energy Target). Experts say Australia’s post-2020 climate pledges are not enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

China, on the other hand, has trialled emissions trading schemes in seven of its provinces and cities, and has pledged to adopt this nationally.

Joyce’s quote links an emissions trading scheme to China’s higher future emissions levels, and links Australia’s decreased future emissions to the absence of a trading scheme.

However, China’s future emissions are predicted to be higher because of its economic growth trajectory. An ETS may put a dent in their predicted future emissions but, because of its pace of GDP growth, there’s no way it could match Australia’s pledge to reduce its emissions on 2005 levels. It’s an unfair comparison.

Verdict

The 150% estimate Joyce is quoting is taken from a recent government report. However, it is at the upper end of estimates and must include some radical assumptions about, for example, China’s economic growth.

Comparing China’s predicted emissions growth with Australia’s is like comparing apples and oranges, and tells you little about the wisdom of adopting a carbon trading scheme to reduce emissions. – Ken Baldwin


Review

This FactCheck is accurate and reasonable in the points it makes. It is true that Joyce’s quote was comparing an industrialising economy that is still growing with a mature economy whose energy consumption is likely to moderate or fall.

The point to make here is that China is using its state power in a dramatic way that makes it very different from Australia. China is curbing its direct coal consumption in a way that is quite likely to lead to peaking in the country’s emissions well before 2030 – a prospect not considered in the report that the minister was quoting from. At the same time, China is driving the expansion of its renewable energy industry, which will likewise have a dramatic impact on likely future emissions. – John Mathews


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