Why China can't make bold carbon pledges: Rogue provinces

During his recent visit to China, U.S. President Barack Obama pushed hard for a firm target for cutting carbon emissions from the Chinese government. He had hoped to secure a concrete, detailed proposal from the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases ahead of the pending Copenhagen Climate Summit in December. But China has delivered a watered-down guarantee that the Obama team publicly praised but privately trashed.

According to The New York Times, the Chinese proposed to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output by 40% to 45% by 2020. That would slow the growth rate of carbon emissions for China, for sure. But due to the country's rapid economic growth rate, aggregate carbon emissions would continue to increase.

The Times argues that China has made such a conservative pledge in part because it was well on its way to achieving the state's goals. However, another factor may be at play. Namely, China is loath to make such a pledge because the central government has less control over the Chinese economy than the West may like to think.

The Obama team must negotiate with China's central government, of course, because it's the only sovereign Chinese entity. But the Chinese government itself has often struggled to control behavior of provincial and local officials and, by extension, the behavior of commercial entities in distant provinces. Why is this important?

Because a significant portion of China's carbon-emitting economy remains more or less beyond Beijing's control. In a country this big, poorly designed coal-fired power plants that belch carbon can be built at the behest of local officials before Beijing can step in to stop construction. Many such plants already operate in China and will be particularly difficult to shutter due to fears closures could hamper regional growth. The local leaders are too often hellbent on growth at any cost. Carbon emissions are the least of their worries as they strive to meet aggressive growth targets and keep their population employed and happy.

Walking a Complicated Tightrope

Likewise, other carbon-intensive operations in sectors such as illegal aluminum smelters and illegal steel mills exist or are built with Beijing getting little or no notification. Of course, the central government would like nothing more than to bring some of these rogue operations to heel. The mandarins in Beijing now recognize that environmental health issues associated with low-grade power generation and lightly regulated smokestack sectors cause hundreds of thousands of premature deaths per year in China. They also make executing a coherent economic and industrial policy far more difficult.

Plus, China is walking a tightrope with job growth. Its economy must grow at rates north of 5% for the country to absorb the millions of peasants moving from rural to urban regions. Enacting carbon emissions mandates could force China, in the government's mind, to choose between meeting laudable environmental goals and expanding the economy fast enough to head off serious social unrest. While the validity of this perception can be debated, it's clearly a concern in China, which has suffered from weak central governments throughout its history.

China is already moving quickly to get a better read on where its carbon emissions are coming from. The Chinese government is the largest customer of Picarro, a Sunnyvale, Calif., company that makes compact laser instruments that can be used to measure carbon emissions across large swaths of territory. But a sufficiently detailed map of China's emissions zones remains too far away to act as an effective environmental policy tool. So the West should be realistic in its expectations about what Beijing will be willing to deliver in Copenhagen.

In China, government control isn't as total as outsiders might perceive.This makes concrete goals of emissions reductions a tricky matter that understandably gives Beijing the jitters.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at alex@dailyfinance.com.

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