That makes it difficult for even the NDRC to simply order emissions improvements.
Meeting efficiency targets, on the other hand, appears simpler—one sure way to save energy is to cut the power. That's exactly what city and provincial governments throughout China did in November, improvising in order to meet economy-wide energy-efficiency targets enshrined in the nation's 11th five-year plan, which runs through the end of this year.
As of early 2010 China had reduced its energy intensity—a measure of energy used per economic unit produced—by more than 15 percent. The plan called for a 20 percent decrease by the end of the year but Chinese manufacturers' robust recovery from the Great Recession meant that energy intensity began to creep up as the months of 2010 passed. Sensing failure, government officials imposed strict energy controls, including blackouts, to ensure the target would be achieved.
"China, with its huge population, needs energy conservation," NDRC's Zhang says. And China has it. "In the past 30 years annual average [gross domestic product] growth registered at 9.8 percent. In the same period of time, energy growth registered at 5.6 percent."
Of course, factory owners promptly switched to back-up diesel generators in order to avoid fines for late deliveries of goods, sparking diesel shortages through wide swathes of the country. In fact, lines of trucks waiting to fill up with diesel stretched for kilometers in coastal cities from Shanghai to Shenzhen—and burning diesel still means CO2 emissions.
"They're willing to do a lot to meet that [efficiency] target, including some very irrational things," Berkeley Lab's Levine notes. As a result of the state-mandated blackouts—and all of the NDRC's various policy measures—China will meet its self-imposed energy conservation target, said NDRC deputy secretary general Zhao Jiarong in a speech on December 3.
And the NDRC will continue such energy-efficiency measures as part of its bid to meet China's commitment to greenhouse gas intensity reductions. On January 1, new energy-efficiency mandates for all of China's power grid companies will take effect, with the full force of the NDRC ordering a 0.3 percent decline in electricity produced compared to 2010—roughly 11 billion kilowatt-hours in savings.
The NDRC has already increased the efficiency of coal-burning power plants across China from an average of roughly 370 grams of coal burned for every kilowatt-hour in 2005 to roughly 340 grams per kilowatt-hour today—and it expects to reach a rate of 330 grams per kilowatt-hour by 2015, according to China's State Electricity Regulatory Commission. According to Shi, Dandong Power Plant is ahead of the curve—burning roughly 320 grams of coal for every kilowatt-hour of electricity it sends out over the connecting high-voltage power lines.
At the same time, predicting China's energy growth has become even more difficult in recent years, according to Levine; thanks to the nation's ongoing construction and export booms, the failure to continue to adopt energy-efficiency improvements such as tighter appliance standards, and even the manipulation of statistics by government officials keen on promotion. "China's energy growth is unpredictable in the short term," Levine says—and that means even efficiency will not prevent increasing greenhouse gas emissions. "It makes no sense [for China] to accept an absolute cap on emissions."