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China's Intensity, Revisited

When China announced yesterday that, oops, it turns out that its 2004 and 2005 economy are 17% larger than it thought, I immediately wondered what effect these revised GDP figures would have on the carbon efficiency and energy efficiency figures I played with a few weeks ago. In "Efficiency, Intensity, and Getting From Here to There," I used US Department of Energy data on global energy use and carbon production to look at trends over the past 25-or-so years. China is the big outlier -- I had to build charts with and without the country in order to show trend lines -- but it's also demonstrating some big improvements.

Since the carbon intensity and use efficiency values compare tons of carbon or BTUs of energy to dollars of GDP, a change as significant as 17% in China's GDP was certain to make a visible difference. The problem is that the DOE figures only go to 2003, and China's retroactive fix was only applied officially to 2004 and 2005. It's unlikely, however, that the reporting errors only cropped up over the last two years; applying the 17% boost to the earlier years, while undoubtedly not accurate, is still probably more accurate than what we had before.

Hit the extended entry for new data and new graphs.

The material in Efficiency, Intensity, etc., covers three major areas: Carbon Intensity -- the tons of CO2 emitted per $1000 of GDP (with GDP measured in constant 2000 dollars); Energy Use Efficiency -- BTUs of energy consumed per $1000 of GDP; and Carbon Efficiency -- tons of CO2 emitted per BTUs of energy consumed. The change to China's GDP only affects the first two, obviously.

Carbon Intensity (Tons CO2/$1000 GDP)
Country          1980          1990          2000          2003
US               0.92          0.70          0.59          0.56
CA               1.12          0.89          0.79          0.80
BR               0.50          0.58          0.57          0.55
SW               0.55          0.28          0.24          0.22
UK               0.70          0.53          0.38          0.37
CH (old)         8.46          5.44          2.81          2.58
CH (new)         7.22          4.65          2.40          2.21
JP               0.34          0.24          0.25          0.25

This turns into this chart (note that I only used the years shown above; in the original, I used every year between 1980 and 2003):


China is still a significant outlier, although it's definitely closer to the other selected nations by 2000-2003. Nonetheless, it's clear that China puts out way more carbon dioxide than its competitors for every dollar of GDP.

Use Efficiency of Energy (BTU/$1000 GDP)
Country          1980          1990          2000          2003
US              15,174        11,901        10,081          9521
CA              24,063        20,751        18,131        17,863
BR              10,778        12,481        14,259        13,944
SW              13,175        11,334          9299          8294
UK              10,112          8153          6711          6427
CH (old)       101,936        65,522        35,973        33,175
CH (new)        87,125        56,002        30,746        28,354
JP                5508          4450          4703          4605

Which becomes this chart:


The same observations apply -- somewhat improved, noticeably closer by 2000-2003. But in this case, the 17% improvement in the 2003 figure brings China to within easy striking distance of Canada. In the earlier essay, I suggested that China might be more efficient than Canada by early in the next decade, if current trends continue; if these figures are accurate, I'd have to say that it's almost certain, and it might even happen by 2010.

Of course, the big problem with these charts is that they still reflect official exchange rates for the GDP figures. If we're going to get more useful information, we need to find the GDP values using "purchasing-power parity" exchange rates. A chart of global 2004 GDP figures using PPP estimates from the IMF and the World Bank show China moving from an estimated $1.65 trillion GDP (pre-adjustment) to over $7 trillion GDP.

If I can find equivalent charts for earlier years, we can really start to figure out some useful information.

Comments (6)

Joe Deely:

So it seems to me that with improved efficiency... China can double or triple the size of its economy and not use any more energy than it uses today.


Um no things are worse since those co2 numbers were very likely based on the wrong data about the economy in china:)

Kevin Leung:

The adjustment mainly came from the services sector, which doesn't suck as much energy as the manufacturing sector so the CO2 per GDP might even drop. Though the energy efficiency of China undoubtedly low, using CO2 per GDP is misleading comparsion as the Chinese economy is mainly composed of manufacturing while the US economy is largely the service industry. So even if its ratio drops in the future, it doesn't mean that China is becoming more efficient in energy, but rather its service sector is growing faster than its manufacturing sector.

Wilted Flower:

as china moves up the value chain, it's by outsourcing/relinquishing lower value production work to other less developed countries, so the total amount of manufacturing output continually expands in the least energy efficient economies.

Even if they manage to improve energy efficiency and keep energy use constant, we're all still putting out too many GHG's and pollutants and depleting raw materials by designing products according to the cradle to grave and recycling=downcycling models; so wwe're still going to hell in a Made in Bangladesh straw basket.

I am in favor of Kyoto only because it is better than nothing, but one of the serious drawbacks is the risk of cheating. Think about it. OPEC is a prime example. When oil prices were low, every single one of them was cheating each other. The only reason they're not cheating now is because they are all (except Saudi) pumping to capacity.

Limiting emissions is even harder to track and enforce. Many governments will be faced with paying stiff penalties for over-emitting or just simply gaming the numbers. Then, when it is apparent that one of the largest emitters is cheating, they will all start doing it.

The way to decrease these emissions is to make clean tech so cheap and so compelling that it is unwise to NOT implement it. I know, easier said than done.

Mark Brandon
Sustainable Log
News and Views for the Socially Responsible Investor

Fascinating post. Thank you. But is that the whole story? It's true that industry in China is vastly less efficient than industry in the U.S. and in Europe, but as Kevin and others said above, it's also true that Western nations are outsourcing basic manufacturing in favor of other industries, to China and to other nations with low costs. And isn't it also true that China has about a billion people, and the U.S. less than a third of that number? And isn't it true that the U.S. puts out about 1/4 of all GHG emitted worldwide? So that per capita, our output is much higher than China's?

I could reference this, but I believe that's fairly accurate. If so, that suggests that if we as a species might want to reduce output, we might do just as well working on the behavior of individuals in the U.S., as on the behavior of industry in China. Which is not to say that industry in China doesn't need improvement, of course, just to stop killing people outright.


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