Published online 4 March 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.137


China announces energy-saving plans

Environment must not be sacrificed to unsustainable development, says nation's premier.

China burnt more than 3 billion tonnes of coal in 2010, up 5.9% on the previous year.R. Pyle/Corbis

China aims to reduce its energy intensity — or energy consumption per unit of economic output — by 16-17% by the end of 2015, said Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday during an online conversation with the country's citizens.

To meet that target, and to shift the focus of economic development from quantity to quality, Wen said that the budget plan for the next five years has lowered the economic growth target to around 7% a year. China must stop sacrificing the environment to wasteful energy use and unsustainable development, said Wen.

The decision reflects concern that China's rapid development threatens efforts to reduce energy intensity, and therefore carbon emissions. Last week, China Daily quoted director of the State Low-Carbon Energy Laboratory He Jiankun's observation that on its current trajectory, China will emit 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015, the same as the United States and European Union combined.

According to the official progress report on the previous five-year budget plan, released on 28 February by China's National Bureau of Statistics, the country has reduced its energy intensity by 19.1% from 2005 levels, close to the 20% target set five years ago.

Total energy consumption, however, continues to rise. In 2010, China burned 3.25 billion tonnes of coal, 5.9% more than the previous year, according to the bureau. Consumption of natural gas, electricity, crude oil and coal rose by 18.2%, 13.1%, 12.9% and 5.9%, respectively, it says.

Targeting inefficiency

Many think that China has improved its energy intensity by closing inefficient factories and power plants while maintaining breakneck economic growth.

But the success is also due to government measures, says Qi Ye, an environment-policy researcher at Tsinghua University and director of the Beijing office of the international think tank Climate Policy Initiative. "The central government took it really seriously and put intense pressure on local officials," he says.

During that period, China invested heavily in energy conservation and environmental protection. The central government set up committees to oversee issues relating to energy conservation and climate change. It also oversaw energy policy in local governments and in energy-intensive industries.

Fear of missing their targets led several provinces to severely ration power in the latter half of 2010. Most of the restrictions fell on industry, but some hit residential electricity. Some factories had to buy diesel generators to remain in operation, triggering a national diesel shortage.

"Power restriction may have helped the local officials to meet their energy-intensity target, but won't serve the purpose of boosting energy efficiency in the long run," says Qi.

On the right track

The new target is challenging but about right, says Knut Alfsen, head of research at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. It is within the 15-17% target recommended in a 2009 report by the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), a joint Chinese and international advisory board to the state government.

The recommended target was based on studies of energy security, industrial change, environmental protection and climate change, says Alfsen, an author of the report.

The Chinese government has commissioned CCICED to scrutinize the country's industries sector by sector, to find ways to further improve energy efficiency.

Whether China will be able to meet its target will largely depend on whether it can move away from central planning to relying more on market mechanisms, Alfsen says.


"Energy prices [in China] are generally too low and uneven," says Alfsen. Removing energy subsidies to industry "could reduce energy intensity significantly", he says.

Qi agrees that top-down enforcement may not be enough to improve efficiency and promote renewable energy. "Introducing effective market mechanisms, thereby increasing the incentives for low-carbon economy, is the key," he says.

China's energy budget and policy for the next five years are now being deliberated by the country's annual party congress and political consultation congress, and are expected to be announced in the next week or so. 


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  • #61783

    I think they are getting totally ripped off. For 1.5 trillion they could buy wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan

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