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CLP’s Modest Promise Of Renewal

The Standard

In response to concerns about global warming, China Light & Power pledged last week to reduce its “carbon intensity” by 75 percent by 2050, a pledge that sounds impressive, and probably is.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In response to concerns about global warming, China Light & Power pledged last week to reduce its “carbon intensity” by 75 percent by 2050, a pledge that sounds impressive, and probably is.

However, this isn’t the same as reducing carbon emissions by 75 percent, but rather in the carbon emitted per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated.

CLP hasn’t therefore actually pledged to improve the existing situation, merely to make the future better than it otherwise might be.

Furthermore, the reduction will be achieved by means that aren’t always seen to be environmentally friendly, including nuclear and large hydroelectric power generation.

The company said “more than 5 percent” – which means, one supposes, only about 5 percent – of energy production will come from “other renewable energy” sources.

Finally, the 40-years-plus maturity of the pledge is a long time, and CLP’s short-term milestones are modest, from reducing the 0.84 kilograms of carbon per KWh of electricity generated to 0.8kg by 2010, and to 0.7kg by 2020. The bulk of reductions are due in the final stages of the pledge, with a reduction in emissions to 0.45kg by 2035 and 0.2kg come 2050.

A lot can happen in four decades. Forty-two years ago, the Vietnam War was escalating, the Cultural Revolution had just been launched, and half of Europe was firmly and seemingly permanently behind the Iron Curtain. Threats to the future of humanity were more typically seen to be in nuclear war or unlimited population growth.

Although making pledges for four decades into the future is pretty safe – one has lots of time to modify them in light of changing conditions – a 75 percent reduction means that if CLP were to quadruple its power generation capacity, it would have to do so without increasing carbon emissions one iota.

This means either all new capacity will be carbon free or there will be reductions in its generating operations.

While we might wish the world will use less energy, it won’t happen.

For China and India to improve their standard of living to even a fraction of that enjoyed by the people of the developed world, energy consumption will increase considerably.

The only way to maintain stable energy use is for the developed world to reduce its energy consumption, and Americans aren’t going to give up their cars so the Chinese middle class can have theirs.

CLP is in the power-generation business and, so long as a company’s conduct is legal, it is supposed to grow that business.

One might suppose CLP has made its particular pledge, and intends to keep it, not out of altruism, but rather calculated self-interest. Perhaps it is seeking a competitive advantage in getting a jump on changes that will sooner or later be legislated for anyway, but its pledge is no less laudable for that.

Given the world, and especially Asia, will need more power plants it is best that as many as possible are built by a company committed to a philosophy of carbon reduction and explicit targets and has, most notably, said that it won’t build any new coal-fired plants in developed countries, rather than by one which has made no such commitments.

Coal-fired power plants are China’s cheapest option for power generation, at least until pollution and other external effects can be costed in, so the best way to reduce China’s emissions is for non- coal alternatives to have a strong and committed corporate champion.

Little if any of this, however, directly affects Hong Kong. Our immediate problem is not so much global warming, however serious it may be, but pollution, a substantial amount of which comes from local coal-fired power plants. Replacing these with a cleaner alternative would help reduce carbon emissions, carbon intensity and pollution.

CLP is a multinational with major operations throughout the Asia-Pacific region. It is right that it looks at its carbon footprint on a global basis. However, Hong Kong is CLP’s home, and additional commitments to reduce its contribution to our hazy skies and poor air quality would be welcome too.

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