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China will embark on the road to a low-carbon economy in its next-five year plan. It will be a momentous decision, for China and the world.

The decision is a result of a growing sense of necessity. China is a huge land mass with diverse climate regimes, all subject to the effects of climate change. In northern China the Ningxia province already suffers a 2 per cent loss of gross domestic product per year from the effects of climate extremes. This will only worsen.

The Chinese leaders are moved by a sense of urgency. Following the traditional economic model is not an option: resource, social and environmental constraints make it impossible. They are also aware of the danger that rapid growth will lock China into industrial and urban structures that will become a liability in a low-carbon world.

Moreover, they want to be one of the leading providers of clean technologies. China is already a world leader on solar power, heat and wind turbines and is rapidly developing key technologies for electric vehicles.

The low-carbon road map proposed for inclusion in the 12th five-year plan (2011-2015) has been developed by a task force of Chinese and international experts drawn from governments, the private sector, non-governmental organisations and think-tanks. They worked under the China Council for International Co-operation on Environment and Development, chaired by Li Keqiang, vice-premier.

The report is to be presented to CCICED in Beijing today and to Premier Wen Jiabao tomorrow. The proposals are partly based on a set of energy demand scenarios produced by the Chinese Energy Research Institute. One adopts a continuation of current trends that will result in the production of nearly 13bn tonnes of CO2 per year by 2050. A second, produced as a “low-carbon scenario”, reduces emissions to nearly 9bn tonnes. A third, more radical “enhanced low-carbon” scenario would produce peak emissions around 2025, reducing to 5bn tonnes by 2050.

In each scenario China would continue its economic growth. However, the Chinese believe significant reductions can be achieved by decoupling growth from greenhouse gas emissions, as Sweden has done.

The Chinese plan is to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by 75-85 per cent by 2050. It will be achieved through industrial restructuring and efficiency gains in every economic sector, including new low-carbon cities that avoid suburban sprawl and prioritise public transport.

This will be complemented by much higher efficiency in fossil fuel use, a shift to renewable energy and the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

By 2050, 64 per cent of China's economy is expected to be in services and 3 per cent in primary industries such as mining, compared with 40 per cent and 12 per cent today.

During the 12th five-year plan, energy-saving measures and new energy sources could reduce carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 20-23 per cent or possibly more.

The energy mix will progressively change. In the medium term there will be an increase in renewable energy and nuclear power, with 50 per cent of generating capacity coming from low-carbon sources by 2030. By 2050 all new power sources will be low carbon. Technology will be critical. Much can be achieved by adapting existing technologies to Chinese conditions. But if the enhanced low- carbon scenario is to be followed it will require innovation and technology sharing on a global scale.

Lord Stern, the climate economist, attended the September 2009 meeting of the task force in Beijing. He believed the report was the most careful, thorough analysis by any country. Early in the two-year preparation of the report, the Chinese participants stated they saw a low-carbon economy as a means to other objectives. It provides an opportunity for them to gain competitive advantage in the new global carbon economy.

It is also clear that they are aiming for something more than a set of economic policies. The process fits well with President Hu Jintao's concept of “a scientific outlook on development”, and contributes to his vision of realising a “harmonious civilisation”.

The implicit goal is that by 2050 China will create a low-carbon society that is equitable, environmentally sustainable, prosperous and resilient.

Sir Gordon Conway is co-chair of the CCICED task force. He is also professor of international development at Imperial College, London



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