Climate Change: Western business can help China and India

Katinka Barysch
17 November 2006

We Europeans are proud pioneers in combating climate change. But what we do at home is almost irrelevant unless we persuade and help China and India to limit emissions.

European countries are doing more than most to reduce emissions at home, according to report presented to the UN’s climate change conference in Nairobi this week: 15 of the world’s ‘greenest’ countries are in Europe. And the EU wants to go further. The European Commission has just published a plan to extend the EU’s pioneering emissions rights trading (ETS) scheme to cover more sectors and pollutants.

European climate policies matter – as examples for the rest of the world and as a testing ground for new technologies and policies. But to stop global warming we need a global approach.

In the US – the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions – the consensus is slowly shifting in favour of tougher policies. While the Bush administration has ruled out ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, a large number of State governments have adopted emission reduction targets or joined regional ‘cap and trade’ schemes.

Whether the US supports a post-Kyoto regime will critically depend on whether China and India come on board. China is already the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly because it relies on coal – the dirtiest of fuels – for two-thirds of its power generation. Coal in China is cheap and plentiful. The country still has reserves to last it about 200 years, and the price of producing energy with coal is a fraction of any alternatives. India is a similar story: it relies on coal for more than half of its energy needs and is the fourth biggest source of CO2 emissions in the world. The International Energy Agency assumes that 70 per cent of additional coal demand until 2030 will come from India and China.

The Kyoto protocol almost pales into insignificance in comparison. In 2004, the Christian Science Monitor reported that China was on course to build 562 additional coal-fired power plants by 2012, more than half of the world’s total. Together with planned new plants in India (213) and the US (70 or so), these will emit 2.7 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide. Compare that with the (maximum) 480 million tons that Kyoto countries have promised to cut from their CO2 emissions by 2012.

Coal is not the only problem. China is already the second biggest oil consumer in the world, after the US. It used up 5.5 million barrels of oil a day in 2005, and India an additional 2 million. Both countries’ needs will continue to grow fast as people get wealthier and more mobile. More than three million new passenger cars were registered in China last year. But still only 11 out of 1,000 people have their own vehicle. In a developed country like the UK, more than half of all people have a car.

Improving the EU’s ETS is important. But our priority must be to persuade and help China and India to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The Chinese and Indian authorities say they take climate change seriously. But they insist that economic growth has priority and only rich countries can afford to combat climate change. China and India account for only 10 per cent of the fossil fuel CO2 accumulated in 1850-2004. The EU, the US and Russia together account for 70 per cent. Getting Beijing and Delhi to sign up to a tough post-Kyoto regime will be as difficult as it will be essential. In the meantime, are there other things we in Europe can do?

At a workshop on India, China and climate change – which the CER ran together with the German-British Forum on November 14th – we explored how the private sector could help China and India to become greener.

The transfer of Western technology is helping to make these countries more energy efficient. But change is slow: 15 years ago, Chinese power plants typically operated at a level of efficiency that was 35-50 per cent of that of German plants. Since then that share has crept up to 50-60 per cent. A step change is needed.

Many people put their hopes into clean coal technologies. These capture the CO2 produced by coal burning and bury it under ground. So far there are only a few pilot plants in places such as Norway and the UK. But even if the West managed to make the technology commercially viable, it would remain too expensive for China to roll it out on a grand scale.

Western governments and the EU give China some money to encourage the adoption of clean technologies. But it is not enough to make a difference. Perhaps market mechanisms are more promising. Business is certainly interested. There are now 80 environmental companies listed in London’s AIM (alternative investment market) alone. Mainstream companies from Goldman Sachs to Virgin have earmarked billions of dollars for green investment schemes. There are now more than 100 funds that solely invest in clean energy and other environmental technologies.

Under Kyoto’s ‘clean development mechanism’, rich-world polluters can keep within their target by investing in environmental projects in those developing countries that have no targets themselves. In theory, therefore, Western businesses have an incentive to invest in energy savings technologies, clean coal plants and renewables in China. In practice, however, the clean development mechanism is clunky and complicated. Its effectiveness also suffers from Kyoto’s limited lifespan. Most green investments, such as new power station or windfarms, have long lifespans. So investors have to make an assumption about long-term trends in carbon prices. At the moment, they don’t even know whether there will be a carbon market after Kyoto runs out in 2012.

China itself is not exactly making it easy for Western companies. Widespread disregard for intellectual property rights makes investors reluctant to transfer the cutting edge technologies that are often needed in environmental projects. Moreover, regulatory frameworks are uncertain or badly enforced. Take renewables as an example. Both India and China have ambitious targets but since burning coal is cheaper than building dams or erecting wind turbines, regulation is needed to encourage investment. In 2004, the Chinese authorities announced that 30 Giga-watts should come from wind power by 2020 (a modest target: experts assume that China’s potential for wind-powered energy is at least ten times that). However, when the government finally released the relevant regulation in 2006, potential investors withdrew in frustration: local content requirements of 70 per cent and an overly competitive market framework would make it almost impossible for western companies to turn a profit. The big winners would be incumbent Chinese energy giants.

Western investment can help China and India to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. But these countries also need to help themselves by building an attractive regulatory and business environment for green investments.