Carbon Emissions and the Carbon Intensity Red Herring

Thomas Friedman of the NY Times reported this from The China Daily the other day:

"BEIJING - The country is set to begin domestic carbon trading programs during its 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015) to help it meet its 2020 carbon intensity target. The decision was made at a closed-door meeting chaired by Xie Zhenhua, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission ... Putting a price on carbon is a crucial step for the country to employ the market to reduce its carbon emissions and genuinely shift to a low-carbon economy, industry analysts said.”

In a week where the US Senate withdrew carbon emissions cap-and-trade legislation because they couldn’t muster 60 votes to get it to the floor, this report from China is pretty staggering. Could it be that China sees the global need to reduce carbon emissions and the United States does not? Well, that’s asking a lot. But it IS clear that Chinese leadership sees value in motivating the development of low carbon emissions systems and technologies that can then be exported to the rest of the world. (Meanwhile, ask the Senators from Oklahoma, Texas, and other oil and coal producing States how much of these commodities they expect to export from the US.) Once again, a <a href=""> dysfunctional Senate </a> ensures that we go the way of the dinosaurs.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Today I want to write about a deception so insidious that both the Chinese politburo and the US Bush Administration adopted it. And that is the concept of carbon Intensity.

In the world of pretend action on climate change, “carbon intensity” is often slipped into press releases and policy statements to make it appear as if the writer actually means “carbon emissions.” Look at the China Daily press release above. The last statement makes it sound as if China is going to “reduce its carbon emissions” and “shift to a low-carbon economy.” Well, not so fast.

The first sentence makes clear that China has a “carbon intensity target.” Carbon intensity, for the uninitiated, is the amount of carbon produced per unit of production. For a washing machine assembly plant, it may be the amount of carbon emissions per machine delivered. For a food processing plant, it may be amount of carbon emissions per ton of corn flakes. The point being that no one is really reducing their carbon emissions from current levels. As production rises, carbon emissions rise as well. Your carbon intensity may fall, and indeed usually does since most plants operate more efficiently at higher capacity. But carbon emissions do not fall.

What the Chinese government has adopted as the carbon intensity target is still unclear. Is it per renminbi of production? Or perhaps it is per dollar of production, which brings exchange rates into play as well. Or maybe it’s per ton of goods produced. So not only is carbon intensity a bit of a flexible target, there are also flavors of carbon intensity with varying degrees of flexibility.

The upshot here is that carbon intensity is a red herring of a target. It distracts us from the real goal of reducing actual carbon emissions. It is easy to fabricate numbers that show you reached your carbon intensity goal without doing any real work.

But more critically, the planet doesn’t really care about carbon intensity. Carbon intensity reduction is a vanity of nations playing games. What matters to the planet is carbon emissions. And we’ve now got the two largest emitters opting for inaction. It makes you wonder, as Friedman pointed out, do these people have any grandchildren?

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.

Photo by Tim Parkinson at