Varun Sivaram

Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR experts examine the science and foreign policy surrounding climate change, energy, and nuclear security.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


The Chinese Energy Intensity Circus

by Michael Levi
October 6, 2010

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.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Elizabeth Economy

    Certainly I agree with everything that you have noted in this post re China. What I am wondering is where the U.S. stands these days. Are we moving forward to address climate change in ways that might not be evident from simply looking at what is taking place on Capitol Hill (nothing useful)? Is Lisa Jackson going to continue to try to legislate our way to effective climate action? Any insights would be much appreciated.

  • Posted by Michael Wara


    Try to walk in the other guy’s shoes for a minute here.

    Do you seriously expect China to fulfill its pledge to open up its cement, industrial, and power sectors to some form of international MRV? Why do that when the US has backed out of its pledge, made at Copenhagen, on emissions cuts? China is not the only one who has backed away from promises made last December.

    My sense is that we are not a credible negotiating partner right now and that the US-China bilateral relationship will drive the outcome on climate. It is unrealistic for us to expect something for nothing. Until we are ready to take credible action on climate change, our major trading partners are not going to do more than take actions that they see as in their self-interest.

  • Posted by John

    China LBL group has started to deconstruct this:

    The full answer awaits us, but constant tinkering with both energy and GDP numbers has made the process non transparent to say the least. Also the Chinese complete energy data revisions every five years. This last one in July just happened to improve 2006-2008 energy intensity performance by 4% even though they admitted they consumed more energy than previously reported. The magic of statistics…

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required