Predicting Emissions
How China Is Wrecking Climate Models

Late last month the MIT Technology Review published a surprising graph that purported to show global carbon emissions actually fell slightly in 2015. That news has since been tempered by new data from a monitoring station in Hawaii that shows last month’s average CO2 readings posted an all-time record increase from the year prior. Clearly our carbon concerns have not been laid to rest quite yet.

But there’s still something to be learned from the MIT Technology Review’s figure—specifically with regards to China’s role as a major global emitter going forward. Industrial and fossil fuels-related emissions fell slightly less last year thanks in large part to China’s stumbling economy and its slow move away from coal (one study claims Chinese coal consumption fell 3.7 percent in 2015, at the cost of 1.8 million jobs to boot). Another study from researchers at the London School of Economics suggests that Chinese carbon emissions are due to peak a lot sooner than most climate models predict, and in fact may have peaked already.

So have we already seen “peak carbon” in China? If we’re right that there’s been a manufacturing bubble in China, and that future growth in China will be both less swift and less concentrated in manufacturing than many analysts have supposed, that’s a big reason for thinking this could be at hand. The assumptions hardwired into climate projections about China’s growth—both in terms of the pace and type of growth—were wrong.

There’s reason to think this current downturn in commodities and manufacturing is more than cyclical, and that we are unlikely to see a return to the supercharged rates of manufacturing growth that China hit in the last couple of decades. This has major implications for commodity production and use of raw materials as well. The excess capacity in mining for example may take a long time to be used up, and we may see less mining and less energy extraction than now expected as these trends work out.

While this may be speculative, we do know that the carbon models in most common use are based on outdated thinking about both the composition and the rate of China’s growth. If, as virtually all experts now believe, China is going to be growing more slowly and less of its growth will be in manufacturing, a major recalculation of the greenhouse emission projections is needed—and not just for China, but for other developing countries which will be moving along similar arcs away from manufacturing. And that revision will be downward.

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