writer[Given the importance of China to the fate of the climate, I am happy to introduce a new guest blogger, Robert Collier [PDF]. He is a visiting scholar at U.C. Berkeley, writing a book about China and global warming. He is a former senior foreign-affairs correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle who reported “from a total of 25 nations on the politics and diplomacy of global warming, international energy policy, the environment and trade.”]

After Saturday’s sputtering end of the U.N. climate talks in Poznan, Poland, it’s clearer than ever that the fate of the post-Kyoto negotiations will depend on whether China can be coaxed to adopt some sort of carbon emissions limits. But as this tug of war plays out in the next year and beyond, what’s most important is not what China says on the diplomatic front but what it does on the home front.

The news on that score is mixed at best. On Friday, the central government admitted that the country is sliding backward in its crucial benchmark for its campaign to increase energy efficiency throughout the economy. The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s super-cabinet agency for economic policy, announced that energy consumption per unit of GDP (what the Chinese call “energy intensity”) fell 3.46 percent over the first three quarters. That’s well below the goal of a 20 percent reduction from 2006 to 2010, which would require 4 percent annual reduction. In fact, 2008 will be the third successive year to fail to reach the benchmark. (The figures for 2006 and 2007 were 1.79 percent and 3.66 percent respectively.) Even worse, the pace of improvement slackened notably during this year’s third quarter, with energy intensity falling only 0.58 percent.

All of this is especially bad news because the energy intensity campaign has been the Chinese government’s single most prominent initiative related to global warming. Over the past two years, Chinese officials and diplomats have touted the campaign far and wide, citing it as proof that China is actually taking tough steps to reduce its emissions.

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[JR: I would add that China’s energy intensity target is no more meaningful than Bush’s carbon intensity target. So what, if China reduces its annual energy use per unit GDP by 4 percent, if its GDP is rising 8 percent to 10 percent a year and the resulting 4 percent to 6 percent growth in energy is met primarily by coal?]

Sticking to his script Friday, NDRC head Zhang Ping described the new data as evidence of yet more success, not failure. “It marks new progress the nation has made in energy saving,” he said, according to a report by China’s official Xinhua news service.

Whether China can go actually green — or at least become less wasteful of energy — is no mere diplomatic debating point. According to numerous scientific studies released over the past year, China has not only overtaken the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but its output has been growing at a rate that far surpasses the efforts of all wealthy nations to decrease theirs. Since 2000, China by itself has produced more than one-half of the world’s net increase in emissions.

As China struggles to maintain its red-hot economic growth amid worldwide recession, a crucial process to watch is the government’s $600 billion economic stimulus plan, announced in November. The plan came as economists predicted that the country’s growth, which averaged about 9 percent in the first nine months of the year, would drop to near zero in the last quarter.

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According to Charlie McElwee, an environmental lawyer in Shanghai whose China Environmental Law is a must-read for anyone trying to sort through China’s official tea leaves, the environmental implications of the bailout package are huge:

“Big winners will be China’s railroads (among other upgrades, money is destined for the construction of special lines for the transportation of coal between the major coal terminals of the country), and the cement, iron, steel, and glass industries. However, fully 25 percent of the total ($146 billion) is reportedly earmarked for “environmental protection.” A significant amount will also be spent on energy production and energy infrastructure, but it is harder to quantify the total amount destined for these projects.”

But if the economic stimulus succeeds even partially in maintaining economic growth, top officials in Beijing may find it even harder to reduce the country’s near-total addiction to cheap coal. Domestic coal prices have followed the sharp international price drop, with coal about 50 percent below its year-ago peak. So for local authorities and company executives around the country who are planning to build another power plant or heavy-industrial plant, there’s less incentive to pay extra for energy-saving technology.

The good news, however, is that the central government appears more keenly aware than ever that China itself is highly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. A “white paper” released in late October by the State Council, the cabinet coordinating agency, spelled out the dangers in a plain-speaking style that was unprecedented for a government agency in China — or in the United States, for that matter:

“China’s temperature rise has basically kept pace with global warming. The latest information released by the China Meteorological Administration shows that the average temperature of the Earth’s surface in China has risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius over the past century, from 1908 to 2007, and that China experienced 21 warm winters from 1986 to 2007, the latter being the warmest year since the beginning of systematic meteorological observations in 1951. The national distribution of precipitation in the past half century has undergone marked changes, with increases in western and southern China and decreases in most parts of northern and northeastern China. Extreme climate phenomena, such as high temperatures, heavy precipitation and severe droughts, have increased in frequency and intensity. The number of heat waves in summer has grown, and droughts have grown worse in some areas, especially northern China; heavy precipitation has increased in southern China; and the occurrence of snow disasters has risen in western China. In China’s coastal zones, the sea surface temperature and sea level have risen by 0.9 degree Celsius and 90 mm, respectively, over the past 30 years.

“Scientific research predicts that climate warming trend in China will further intensify; frequency of extreme climate events is likely to wax; uneven distribution of precipitation will be more visible than before and the occurrence of heavy precipitation will increase; drought will expand in scope; and the sea level will rise faster than ever.”

This report added punch to other government reports issued over the past year that predicted climate change will cause China’s production of wheat, corn and rice to drop by as much as 37 percent over the next 50 years. Chinese scientists have estimated a sea level rise of 12 inches would cause the equivalent of $7.5 billion in economic losses to the Pearl River Delta area, $1.3 billion for the Yangtze Delta area, and $6.9 billion for the Yellow River Delta and Bohai Sea region.

Whether this danger goads the central government into enforcing greater energy efficiency on its 31 provinces, 333 municipalities, 2,859 counties and 694,745 rural villages is an open question. But it’s one that the government is no longer ignoring.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.