Blackouts and Climate Change

China is so far ahead of America on climate change action that they are shutting off electricity to cities and factories around the country to meet conservation targets. Though not a sign of a particularly well run policy, it does show one thing, commitment.

Back in Copenhagen the US, along with most of the classic ‘western’, countries were at odds with China over their emissions reductions targets. China wouldn’t budge from their plan to reduce carbon intensity, meaning less CO2 per unit of GDP. The problem to western eyes was, and rightly so, that a reduction in intensity wouldn’t reduce total output, what with China’s GDP rising so fast. The continued, and rapid, growth of coal power in China is an example of the problems with only targeting carbon intensity.

But while Copenhagen produced nothing substantive on a global level, with China’s carbon intensity dogma often quoted as a culprit, the Chinese are not making hypocrites of themselves. You can question the quality of the policy but you can’t discount that they are serious about achieving it. Their 11th Five Year Plan, for 2006 to 2010, aimed for a 20 percent reduction in energy consumption per unit of GDP, with a goal of 40 to 45 percent by 2020. To add bite to the bark the carbon targets are labeled ‘high priority,’ right up there with GDP growth targets, which China is famously dogmatic about.

Here’s where blackouts come in. Responsibility for reaching these targets is passed down to regional governments, giving leeway to set local policy in exchange for the metaphorical hanging dagger. Now, with December looming as the end of the five year cycle local leaders are under the gun to meet their targets. The result has been some borderline draconian policies including forced shut downs of industry and rolling city-wide blackouts.

These aren’t your mother’s blackouts: in Jiaxing, a city in wealthy Zhejiang Province, businesses have been forced to cut power at least 2 days a week; in one city power was even cut to the local hospital. Many places are also cutting back on public lighting and restricting air conditioning. It appears to be a rag tag, disjointed scramble. The central government, for their part, has spoken out against the blackouts and says they are acting to stop them.

Aside from general public animosity, not to be discounted, these forced shutdowns have some deeper negative consequences. For one, it’s rough on businesses. Filling contract obligations in a shut down factory is more than a small kink in the rope. As a result many aren’t stopping production in accordance with the blackouts, simply switching over to independent generators, enough to cause a diesel fuel shortage. Switching to off grid energy shortages is not conservation, and even to the extent the blackouts are effective, they aren’t sustainable.

It also raises questions of transparency. Independent producers running generators off-grid is just one example of the potential ways to game the system. Beyond the difficulty of effective monitoring, regional political leaders certainly have incentive to fudge their stats. In this environment, how much to trust any of the numbers coming from the Chinese government is a major point of concern.

In fact, monitoring was another of the major sticking points between developed countries and China back in Copenhagen. The Chinese didn’t want to be subjected to as rigorous monitoring as western countries, arguing that it is unfair to be subjected to the same standards as countries with more resources. The sore point has stuck around; it was a major topic at international climate talks in Tianjin last month, though once again there was no substantive action.

The other oft mentioned point that comes with talking about China’s climate action shortcomings is that at least they’re doing something. The chaos and controversy surrounding Chinese attempts to meet their targets is quite a contrast to the complete lack of action in the US. So while Chinese citizens are being forced to shiver through the onset of winter in the name of progress, Americans will be left to worry about what’s to be done in perfect comfort.

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