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Carbon emissions will peak between 2030 and 2040, says minister
Published on: 2009-12-07
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China's carbon emissions will peak between 2030 and 2040, the country's science and technology minister told the Guardian as the global climate change summit began in Copenhagen. In an exclusive interview, Wan Gang said he hoped the maximum output of Chinese greenhouse gases would come as soon as possible within that range, and spelled out the steps that needed to be taken to achieve this.

His comment, while not official policy, is the closest the world's biggest emitter has come to setting a target for when its output of greenhouse gases will start to fall.

Setting a peak date for developing countries, whose emissions are rising rapidly, will be a key issue for negotiators in Copenhagen trying to map out a global strategy to avoid a rise of more than 2C in the planet's temperature. Scientists agree a greater rise would have dangerous consequences.

Thinktanks, research groups and academics in China have variously estimated that the emissions peak could come between 2020 or 2050, but the government has yet to announce a target.

Wan narrowed the range considerably by predicting that the peak would definitely come between 2030 and 2040.

"There are some uncertainties here, so it is difficult to say whether it will be in the beginning, the end or the middle, but I can say for sure it will be within that range," he said. "As the minister of science and technology I would say the sooner the better."

The precise timing, he said, would depend on uncertain factors such as the pace of China's economic growth, rate of urbanisation and level of scientific development. But he added that the earlier date in the range would be possible if China continued to invest in renewable energy, improved energy efficiency, commercialised carbon capture technology and changed consumer behaviour.

Wan, a non-Communist member of the state council, said China has proved its ability to meet and often exceed its targets in the current five-year plan to improve energy efficiency by about 20%. His ministry has already exceeded by 30% its goal during this period of investing 10bn yuan to reduce emissions and deal with the consequences of climate change.

Jim Watson, of the Tyndall Centre at the University of Sussex, said: "I think this range makes it difficult for China to make a full contribution to keeping the rise in global temperatures below two degrees. That would be more compatible with a peak within 2020 to 2030. But it is very significant that the minister is willing to talk of a peak, even a range, at this stage."

Environmental groups gave a cautious welcome to the figure, but said China could be more ambitious if rich nations provide technology and finance. "This is a good thing. This is the first time that a ministerial-level official has confirmed the peak range," said Yang Ailun of Greenpeace. "If China really makes climate change a priority, they could peak by 2030. And if they get support from developed countries, they could do it even faster."

An agreement to transfer technology and money from rich to poor nations is one of China's main goals at the Copenhagen conference. China is keen to get international help to reduce the price of silicon processing for solar panels and to develop ultra-efficient coal gasification plants.It is already collaborating with the UK on a project to capture carbon dioxide. In future, Wan said the country will explore the potential for storage or conversion to algae biofuels.

"Seventy per cent of our electricity comes from coal," the minister said. "If we can capture all the CO2 from this, imagine how much emissions we could save. But it is not something we can do in the short term."

But most of China's future emissions savings will come from improved efficiency of power plants, buildings and transport and from nuclear, solar and other forms of renewable energy.

Last week, the government in Beijing announced its first carbon intensity target, which would slow the increase of emissions relative to economic growth by 40%-45% between 2005 and 2020. Even with this measure, the country's output of carbon dioxide is expect to increase by about 90% if the economy grows by 8%.

Although the carbon intensity target is lower than China achieved over the previous 15 years, Wan said it posed an "arduous task" because the government has already picked most of the low-hanging fruit when it came to upgrading inefficient power stations.

Wan said the priority at Copenhagen would be to establish a framework for transferring funds and money, rather than getting hung up on figures.

"If we can achieve this goal, that is good enough," he said. "Copenhagen is very important to all governments and politicians. It's an important turning point, but it is also just the start of human efforts to tackle climate change. It is not the end."

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