Dr. Wang Tao Responds to Questions on Tyndall Centre Report

23 June of 2009 by

197917 Dr. Wang Tao Responds to Questions on Tyndall Centre Report

Last month, I reviewed the Tyndall Center report on China’s Energy Transition: Pathways for Low Carbon Developmentand expressed three specific concerns.  Since then, I’ve had anopportunity to exchange emails with Dr. Wang Tao (pictured right), oneof the co-authors of the report.  He has taken time to address myquestions and has graciously agreed to have his explanations postedhere.

Here are the concerns I raised on my last post, rephrased for clarity, and Dr. Wang’s responses.

1.  In choosing a global carbon budget for the report’sscenario analysis, a target of 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, whichtranslates to roughly 550 ppm carbon dioxide equivalent, is used.  Is550ppm CO2e a safe target, especially considering what we know aboutnegative feedback loops and runaway climate change?

No. As many already know, climate change is already happening andthere have been many arguments about what is a relatively safe level ofcarbon concentration to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. Thescientific consensus has not been reached; as I have witnessed myselfin the Copenhagen climate science congress in March 2009, you can hearpeople talking about levels from as low as 300 ppm to as high as 550ppm, yet no one is be perfectly sure. I do recognize that the 550ppm target that we choose  is at the upper end; this does not mean weaccept this level as acceptable, but that is the only figure with widescientific consensus in the IPCC AR4. I would like to reduce it tolower level if there is another widely accepted level. The report hasshown that even with 550ppm CO2e it would be very difficult to reachand require significant courage from government to take radical changessoon. It is better to get them moving rather than scare them off at thefirst place, right? With the same methodology, you could always applylower CO2 level if wanted, but the trajectories may look scarier. Ourchoice is rather a compromise between what is ideal and what ispractical, as we said in the report.

2. All four low carbon scenarios in the report rely heavilyon carbon storage and sequestration (CCS) technology, which has notbeen proven on a commercial scale.  A good number of people, includingGLF, are skeptical about the viability of CCS in the long term becauseit is, as I’ve put it before “completely unproven [on a commercialscale], imposes an energy penalty, and is very expensive.”  What isyour response to skeptics like us?

I am afraid we certainly have different views here. To me, CCS is amust have for China to reduce carbon emission at the rate needed tocomply with the carbon emission budget. You probably already see thatfrom our report, although with different development pathways andeconomic structures, the Chinese economy will in all scenarios have toimprove energy efficiency rigorously and develop low carbon energysources (either renewable or nuclear). But in order to reduce theemission as much as depicted by the trajectory (even just for 550ppmCO2e), there will still be enough coal and oil use that will blow theclimate away if unabated. Therefore CCS is a must. I don’t think it isan unproven technology. It is very expensive, but with a carbon priceand technology improvement (the large scale will only start in Chinafrom 2030), there is a large scope for it to be much more economicallyviable in the future. And we must ask, are the costs of CCS moreexpensive than the climate impacts that follow from letting the carbonemission unabated to the atmosphere?

The major barrier for CCS is not technical, but financial. Becausethe externality cost of carbon emission or the external benefit of CCSin avoiding climate change are not taken into account, there is noincentives to use CCS that will only cost power plants and customersmore. But when the price mechanism is put right, it would be tooexpensive to use coal and not to have CCS! Of course financingmechanism is never an easy topic either.

[GLF note:  See this excellent new overview on China's CCS activities by ClimateWire, posted on the NYTimes.com]

3. The low carbon scenarios envision a shift away frommanufacturing towards the service and high tech industries-will thoselatter sectors be able to provide the same amount of jobs to maintainsocial order?  Does this also mean China is outsourcing is highlypollutive heavy industry to other countries? Relatedly, how feasible isit for the scenarios to have agriculture, a historically and sociallyimportant sector, shrink form 15% today to about 3 to 5%.

The service and high tech and high value added industry actuallyprovide more jobs than many heavy industries as the latter one iscapital intensive or energy intensive. The service industry is a laborand skill intensive industry. If you look at the cases of US, UK, andmany other developed countries, you will realize economic structuralchange to service and high tech industries does not create a problemof, but is instead a solution to, the unemployment issue.

For manufacturing outsourcing, you are right to question if Chinacan outsource its manufacturing sector in the future in the way that USand EU have done before. However, there are two trends worthnothing–first, China might well reach a infrastructure saturation by2030 and may therefore have to seriously reduce its demand on heavyindustrial products; second, the heavy industries are already flowingout of China to other less developing countries because of variousreasons. Theses countries will have much more lax requirements onemission than China, e.g. Vietnam and Malaysia. The key is to have highenergy efficiency in these new built industries in less developedcountries so they don’t follow the same track as China did.

As for agriculture, our report does not say that sector is going toshrink in absolute terms, not at all. But the value added fromagriculture will be much less than service and other high value addedindustries, which grow much faster, therefore agriculture’s share inthe whole economy reduced. Look at the economy structure of developedcountries we provide in our report and you will realize it is not astrange imagination we have but the general economic trend.  In thiscase, we are simply accelerating this same trend in China.

Dr. Wang Tao is trained as an environmental economist, receivinghis Masters and PhD from the University of York in the UK, previouslystudying for a Bachelors of Science from Fudan University inenvironmental science.  His recent research focuses on China’s energyand climate policy in the future, and how energy policy and low carbontechnology could help China to transit to a low carbon economy. Inaddition to his postings at the Tyndall Center and University ofSussex, he has published articles recently for Climate Policy, theTyndall Center, and the United Nations Human Development Report. DrWang is also interested in low carbon technology transfer to developingcountries and has contributed to a recent report on the embodied carbonemissions in China’s international trade and their implications forinternational climate and trade policies. Tao remains keenly interestedin the interfaces between policy, technology and business, especiallyin China.

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