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Taking Stock of Carbon Emissions: Policies, Strategies, and Tools for the U.S. and China

October 01, 2010 // 9:00am11:00am
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Environmental Change and Security Program
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Over the past year, the Chinese government has been aggressively promoting low carbon policies to help ensure China's energy security and lower the country's greenhouse gas emissions. At the Copenhagen climate meeting in December 2009, the Chinese leadership committed the country to ambitious CO2 emissions targets. But for all countries, not just China, ensuring that the CO2 reductions from various low carbon policies meet stated targets—namely that they are measurable, reportable, and verifiable (MRV)—is a challenging task that has also become a contentious issue in international climate talks. On the eve of the October 2010 Tianjin intercessional climate meetings, CEF presented three speakers who explored key MRV issues as they relate to U.S.-China climate and energy cooperation.

Leading climate and energy researcher Qi Ye of Tsinghua University's Climate Policy Institute started off this panel by providing an overview on the effectiveness of some of China's key climate and low carbon policies. His evaluation was based on an extensive new report by his institute. Additionally at this meeting, Michael Gillenwater of the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute delved into broader issues that often get lost in political debates, namely the capacity gaps that currently prevent countries from accurately implementing greenhouse gas emission MRV systems. And finally, Kevin Gurney introduced the Vulcan Project, which aims to quantify North American fossil fuel CO2 emissions at physical and time scales much finer than has been achieved in the past.

To kick off the meeting, Qi Ye introduced the Climate Policy Institute (CPI) of Tsinghua University. Established in 2009 with offices in Berlin and San Francisco, CPI focuses on evaluating and analyzing the efficacy of climate policies, specifically looking at what are observable results, what are the key policies that brought these results, and why some of the policies work better than others in reducing carbon.

In an analysis of China's low carbon and climate policies, Tsinghua researchers concluded that energy efficiency and renewable energy policies have been the most effective in achieving carbon reduction goals and targets in China. However, Dr. Ye stated that most of the carbon reductions were achieved at very high economic, political, and social costs. In short the policies were effective in reaching the government's targets, but not efficient. For example, massive subsidies for wind turbines have led to the development of wind power farms that are not connected to the grid. Moreover, to meet the 20 percent energy intensity reduction goals, many local governments have been forced to shut down electricity to major industries and such requirements have likely dampened the enthusiasm for many local officials to support upcoming low carbon policies and targets.

While the Chinese central government targets were the main drivers of low carbon technology development and energy intensity reductions, economic incentives also played in major role, especially when it came to renewable energy policies. Qi Ye emphasized that the12th and 13th Five-Year Plans need to focus on creating even more motivation for more renewable energy development and the power grid infrastructure to support its distribution. To conclude, and to transfer to the next presenter focusing on MRV issues, Dr. Ye stated that MRV, known in China as data collection, monitoring, and performance evaluation has been a policy since November 2007, although not yet effectively enforced. However, energy and policy practitioners in China have built up stronger skills in this area through the monitoring of energy efficiency targets under the 11th Five-Year Plan.

Next to speak was Michael Gillenwater of the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute—a self-described "behind the scenes" capacity and infrastructure support organization. Over the past decade, this NGO has focused on building an extensive GHG expert community with the goal of sharing best practices and increasing the capacity of organizations and governments to account for greenhouse gases.

Mr. Gillenwater said that the train of thought on GHG emissions needs to be shifted from one focused on compliance to emission limits to one that thinks of GHGs as commodities to be regulated. GHGs have the potential to become the largest traded commodities in the world. As such, it is right to be concerned about the MRV issue, for if there are incentives to fudge the numbers they will be fudged. Data quality is at the root of the MRV challenge and quality data relies on sufficient infrastructure, standards, and technical training. Ultimately capacity needs to be increased in every country. Specifically, there needs to be qualified personnel who are trained in measuring, reporting, and verifying GHGs, and this process—with continued emphasis on sharing best practices and training—will take time.

To conclude and to give an a unique on-the-ground perspective, Kevin Gurney of Arizona State University/The Vulcan Project wrapped up the talk by showing how quality data on GHG emissions can be collected. Dr. Gurney used the Vulcan Project—a NASA/DOE funded effort—as an example of one way to quantify North American fossil fuel CO2 emissions. This project takes data at space and time scales much finer than has been achieved in the past and uses extremely specific point source to monitor carbon emissions. The project shows that quality data can be gathered accurately; however it requires significant technical knowledge, data mining, and communication between the academic, government and business worlds. The data used in the project, however, is somewhat dated, which underscored a major challenge to using such a tool to monitor progress in complying with an eventual global climate agreement. The result is a very accurate representation of CO2 emissions in the United States. (See video)

Dr. Gurney summed up by saying that even though these data are of extremely high quality, it was required significant funding, technical capability, and effort. A lesson that was stressed throughout all the presentations vis-à-vis MRV challenges in China and beyond.

Drafted by Peter Marsters.

 
Event Speakers List: 
  • Arizona State University - The Vulcan Project
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