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China making inroads on emissions

After a 12-day summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, 193 leaders from around the world reached an agreement on how to combat climate change.

The challenges facing China were visible during a recent visit to the headquarters of Sinopec Shanghai Petrochemical, one of China's top producers of chemicals, plastics and refined oil. Officials there said they were reducing their relative carbon output but could not supply those statistics and the government - not the company - tracks such data. And between 2009 and 2010 Sinopec Shanghai increased its annual oil refinery production from 8.7 million to 10.7 million tons, a number that is expected to grow in the coming years.

"It is a paradox, actually, in terms of the technological process of production. In a sense you need to produce more carbon dioxide," said Gao Jinping, chairman of the company's supervisor committee. But he added that the company has become more efficient and has prioritized environmental considerations. "We are certain we can meet the demand from the government to lower our emissions."

Still, there are downsides to China's "go it alone" approach. Zou Ji, the country's director for the World Resources Institute, said the nation's rapid growth over the past five years may mean it fails to meet its energy intensity target. As Chinese become wealthier, buy cars and move to the city at a rate of 24 million a year, all of this contributes to higher carbon emissions.

"One of the implications is it will be tougher to meet more ambitious targets in the future," Zou said, adding that when it comes to near-term emission cuts, "there will be some improvement compared to the baseline as business as usual. I would not be very optimistic in absolute terms."

But with U.S. climate legislation and international negotiations stymied, activists and scientists who warn the world is failing to cut carbon pollution fast enough point to China's efforts.

"The crux of the debate is, China is doing something," said Alex Wang, director of the Beijing-based China Environmental Law Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Neither the U.S. nor China is doing enough to address the risks of climate change. But we're seeing a lot of reason for frustration in the U.S. In China, from the policy perspective, there's a tremendous amount going on."

While the Chinese government will come close to meeting its target, it's unclear if it willl reach it entirely. It has set a more ambitious target for the next decade, pledging to cut its carbon output per unit of economic activity between 40 and 45 percent by 2020.

These commitments are modest compared to ones by industrialized nations such as Japan and members of the European Union. But they are significant given that China has no international obligation to slow its rate of emissions growth, and far beyond what countries such as India have pledged to do.

Nationwide, between 2006 and 2009 China replaced 7 percent of its electricity generation capacity with cleaner power plants, according to the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy.

In the past several months, Chinese officials have intensified their focus, announcing they will replace outdated equipment in 2,000 power plants and spend $75 billion a year on clean energy technology, a figure triple the size of the Energy Department's entire budget. And they are quietly being trained by American and European experts on how to trade emissions credits within a given industry to cut greenhouse gases.

"You really see a greater emphasis on these kinds of things, especially within the industrial sector," said Ned Helme, president of the D.C.-based Center for Clean Air Policy.

Angela Anderson, program director for the U.S. Climate Action Network, said American and Chinese politicians will cut emissions only if they see it as promoting long-term economic and energy security. "What's different is China does see it as in its best interest, while the U.S. is still debating it."

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