WRI's Seligsohn discusses China emissions plan, prospects for Copenhagen

Ahead of this week's Copenhagen climate summit, China recently released plans for domestic emissions reductions. Are the goals significant? What impact will they have on the international negotiations? During today's OnPoint, Deborah Seligsohn, senior fellow and principal adviser in the China Climate, Energy & Pollution Program at the World Resources Institute, gives her take on China's emissions reduction plans. She explains how China's announcement will change the dynamic of the Copenhagen meeting. Seligsohn also talks about changes to the U.S.-China relationship under the Obama administration.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Deborah Seligsohn, senior fellow and principal adviser in the China Climate, Energy and Pollution Program at the World Resources Institute. Deborah, thanks for being here.

Deborah Seligsohn: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Deborah, China recently unveiled its plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. What are your big picture thoughts on the announcement? I mean is this a serious effort on China's part?

Deborah Seligsohn: It is a serious effort, but I think it's worth realizing that they promised to reduce their greenhouse gas intensity, so it's the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of GDP. So basically what they've committed to do is continue to attempt to lower the rate of increase of their emissions between now and 2020. We're not going to actually see them fall, but for a country developing like China is, growing as rapidly as it is and from such a low base, I mean China's emissions today are less than a quarter per capita what the emissions are in the United States. And their energy use is about 1/7 per capita what ours is here in the United States. So, for them to continue to grow the big challenge for the moment is to really try to reduce that rate of growth and to try to decouple carbon emissions from economic growth over this period.

Monica Trauzzi: So, does this signal to you that the government is serious about reducing emissions and cooperating with the international community on a new treaty?

Deborah Seligsohn: Yes, I think it's been clear for quite a while that they're quite serious about reducing their emissions, especially their energy related emissions. They've had in place since 2005 a very, very tough energy efficiency program. They've had ambitious renewable and alternate energy goals. They also actually have quite an effective reforestation program. China has grown from 1949 when they had 8.6 percent forest cover to over 19 percent forest cover today, so they have a pretty diverse program. This is the first time that they've put all those pieces together and put them as a greenhouse gas goal and I think that's a very important step for them to take. And it's clear that they did it now because they want to see a successful outcome at Copenhagen.

Monica Trauzzi: And how are you expecting the announcement to sort of change the dynamic between the different countries in Copenhagen? I mean is this having a strong impact on other countries?

Deborah Seligsohn: Well, I think the timing of the U.S. announcement with the Chinese announcement two days later indicates that there was significant coordination between the U.S. and China and that China is actually paying more attention than one might have thought they would, actually in the American public opinion, which is quite interesting. It's also clear that other developing countries have been interested, both in the lead up to these announcements and since these announcements in making it clear what they can do. We've seen pretty ambitious announcements by Mexico, South Africa, Brazil. You know, India has come out with their announcement since China made its announcement. There's also been good coordination between India, China, and Brazil and South Africa in the last few months and I think all of that is positive for Copenhagen. I'm of the view that sort of the more countries understand where each other are coming from and what each country can do, the more likely we are to get to an agreement.

Monica Trauzzi: So bigger picture, how is the U.S.-China relationship shifting under the Obama administration?

Deborah Seligsohn: Well, I think it's very good. I mean the reality is I think there's been a trajectory of improvement in the U.S.-China relationship, well, probably from 1972 onward. I mean it's kind of been up and up. It started to dramatically improve in the late 90s when Bill Clinton did his big trip to China. During the Bush administration the relationship grew tremendously in breadth and depth. At that time I was working at the U.S. Embassy and one of my big jobs as the science counselor there was to help new U.S. government agencies set up offices in China. We had a new DOE office, a new National Science Foundation office, a new HHS office, the CDC tripled its staff while I was there sort of in 2003 to 2007. So it's been a tremendous growth in the relationship, especially in the technical relationship in these areas. And with Obama I think there's been a dramatic step upward again. I think Hillary Clinton's visit back in February was incredibly important. There was a lot of anxiety in Beijing before the visit of what was it going to be like, what was she going to be like and she really conveyed a great deal of trust, a willingness to listen, a willingness to really engage and discuss all these issues and people were really happy. The visits by Lock and Chu in the summer and the signing of the new MOU on climate change was really important and then this visit by Obama. Again, I think we're seeing substantial steps forward. I think we're seeing a relationship where we're really treating China as an important partner that we have to discuss issues, we have to listen to them, they have to listen to us, and we actually have to share information. I was particularly impressed at the strategic and economic dialogue in July that the U.S. opened by having Peter Orszag explain the U.S. budget to the Chinese. Because it's not just that we need them to explain their economic reform, they need to know what we're doing too. So I think it's a new relationship on a more equal footing than it's ever been before.

Monica Trauzzi: There seems to be a shift happening right now in the way the mainstream media in the U.S. is covering China on energy and climate. It used to be very negative all the time and we're consistently seeing more positive reporting about what China is doing to reduce emissions, to develop clean energy technologies. Is that a fair representation of what's happening there?

Deborah Seligsohn: Yeah, I think it really is a fair representation. I mean the Chinese really turned around in 2005, 2006, and started to focus on energy efficiency and on pollution abatement. I mean in the last four years they've reduced their total sulfur dioxide emissions by 10 percent nationwide by having the largest build-out of scrubbers on power plants that's ever been seen in the world and following that up by actually putting continuous emissions monitoring equipment on these power plants. On the energy efficiency side we've seen them go through the top 1000 enterprises, which are 33 percent of China's total energy use, and put strict standards and reporting requirements on every single one of them, issue directives on specifically what you need to do technically to improve the efficiency of your steel plant or your cement plant. And they're two years ahead of schedule on their goals for that program. And, at the same time, we've seen them actually go through and shut some of the smallest, most polluting, most inefficient factories in China, lots of them, enough to be a significant part of them meeting this 20 percent energy intensity goal they set for themselves.

Monica Trauzzi: So, is your expectation that China will become the leader and the base for developing and manufacturing clean energy technologies? Are we going to be going to them for that as well?

Deborah Seligsohn: Well, that's actually an entirely different question because most of the improvements that they've made so far are on things like efficiency, where I think we're all operating from the same technologies. I do think we're already seeing, in certain renewables, that China is a world leader, obviously in solar energy. I mean they're one of the largest producers of solar PV and the U.S. is a significant export market for that, as is Europe. One of the things about solar PV is it's pretty similar in terms of mass production to a lot of the other things that China is quite good at. The story for wind turbines, for example, will be much more complex because many of the components of a wind turbine are very heavy and you're likely to see much more local production, wherever you do it. So, China is going to be a key player. In some of the technologies we see the U.S. and China have different advantages and it's really going to be a huge advantage to work together. A couple of examples, electric vehicles, the Chinese have done a lot on batteries, but the U.S. is clearly a better car maker. If we're looking at IGCC, integrated gasification combined cycle power plants, the U.S. has the turbine expertise, but the Chinese has tremendous gasifying expertise. If we're looking at smart grids in long-distance transmission, the Chinese have really moved ahead in terms of those long-distance transmission lines themselves and their efficiency, but the U.S. has a lot more of the software for grid management. So if we can work together we really have great opportunities to move farther and faster in both countries.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Deborah Seligsohn: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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