Too much, too late


Following the Copenhagen summit, the world is waiting to see whether or not China will achieve its energy conservation and emissions-reduction commitments – a result it will not be able to fudge. While there are less than four months left to reach the target of "decreasing energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20%" for the 11th Five-Year plan, data for the first half of this year indicated a rise in energy consumption. With the need to complete almost a year’s quota within six months, the central government has realised it must "turn losses to gains", forcing unwilling local governments to find ways to solve the problem, like a drowning man who clutches at a straw. 

In May, China’s State Council held a teleconference on energy conservation and emissions reduction. Premier Wen Jiabao began by admitting that achieving the emissions-reduction targets for the 11th Five-Year plan would be very difficult. He then stressed that "Regardless of how big the problems we face are, we cannot change our commitment, our determination cannot be shaken and our work cannot become weak." Afterwards, in August, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology ordered 2,087 companies with low production capacities to close by the end of September. However, the media suspected the list had been "plumped up" by including many companies which have long been out of business.

Faced with repeated demands from the central government, as judgement day approaches, local governments have been left with no choice but to make a last-ditch effort. Reluctant to shut down high-emission companies that make enormous contributions to local GDP, power cuts have been rolled out in various regions. According to the Beijing Times, Anping County of Hengshui, Hebei province will implement three county-wide power cuts starting from September. Under the original instructions, not only businesses, but also ordinary people were to face the distress of 22 hour blackouts every three days in their homes. "Leniency" was not even granted to hospitals and traffic lights.
As soon as this news was revealed by the media, it immediately caught the attention of the National Development and Reform Commission and the Hebei provincial government, who quickly responded by ordering Anping county to amend the order. Only then were hospitals, people and traffic lights spared.
This news exposed the extent to which Chinese counties and cities have failed to take measures towards energy conservation and emissions reduction. Let’s use Anping County as an example. The county, known as the "home of wire mesh", is the base for the largest manufacturer and seller of wire mesh and has the world’s largest wire product distribution centre. Wire mesh manufacturing is the only industry here. In order to meet reduction targets, they should punish these big power users, but this would inevitably deal a devastating blow to local employment and state revenue. The result is bad decisions.
The key to energy conservation and emissions reduction is increasing production efficiency. But ordering old technology to be phased out before new technology is widely available, while leaving local governments that rely on outdated production capacity to their own devices, will in the end be counterproductive for central government. High emitters that have been banned in one place, will be immediately snatched up by another. And the majority of businesses pressured to stop production will simply wait until the targets are met or the buzz dies down, and then resume work.
In such circumstances, even if we were able to meet the targets of the 11th Five-Year Plan at the end of this year, imagine what will happen if the emission-intensity targets are increased for the 12th Five-Year Plan. And what about the committment to cut carbon emissions relative to economic growth by 40% to 45% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels?
Chinese people like having a good reputation – if a 20% target has been set, they feel "embarassed" if they don’t achieve 21%. Don’t even mention publicly admitting to the world a failure to reach emissions-reduction targets. The chief has said the word, and so the people of the nation have to tighten their belts and see it through. It is like the year when every household threw all their steel pots, pans and shovels into the backyard kiln. Determining the success or failure of administration only by presentation and data, while blindly pursuing GDP growth and “painting barren hills green” to demonstrate environmental achievements – this is the energy conservation and emissions reduction that the people are paying for.
Reducing emissions is a long-term strategy that cannot be based just on data. Putting the achievement of goals before people’s life and work, as has happened in Anping County, is contrary to General Secretary Hu Jintao’s “non-vacillating” principle, which calls for the pace of economic and social progress in China to be maintained.