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The Unintended Consequences of Carbon Reduction in China

In China, blackouts and fuel shortages accompany efforts to meet a greenhouse gas target.
November 10, 2010

Efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in China may be backfiring–at least in the short term.

Next month the country faces a self-imposed deadline to reduce its carbon intensity (a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP) by 20 percent compared to 2005 levels. In a last minute dash to meet these targets, some local governments have started imposing planned blackouts.

While the blackouts are cutting emissions from power plants, they’re having unintended consequences. Factories, which have to keep running to meet production requirements or face fines for missing deadlines, are getting their power instead from backup diesel generators. These emit carbon dioxide and running them has led to a diesel shortage. Thousands of fueling stations have reportedly shut down or refused to sell drivers more than half a tank of diesel fuel. To make up that gap, Chinese refineries are producing more diesel–a strain in a country that has to import most of its oil.

Of course, unintended consequences from efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions aren’t limited to China. In the United States and Brazil, the use of food crops for biofuels can drive up food prices and lead to the destruction of forests as new land is cleared to make up for lost food production. Clearing that land also results in more carbon dioxide emissions, undoing much of the benefit of biofuels.

Ethanol made from sugar cane rather than corn (the main source of ethanol in the U.S.) results in far less carbon dioxide emissions. But Dan Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, estimates that when you figure in the impact of cleared rainforests, that benefit could disappear.

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