The front page of the New York Times today has an article on China building cleaner coal-fired plants. The title and the article are fairly accurate but any conclusions should be carefully drawn. In particular, China is not taking effective steps to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

In raw terms, China does genuinely invest a great deal of money in “green energy.” That’s because, in raw terms, the PRC invests a great deal of money in everything, including industries which heavily pollute.

The PRC is definitely working to clean up its coal production. In this it has advantages over the US in that Chinese President Hu Jintao hasn’t publicly bashed his country’s coal industry and Chinese environmentalists don’t loudly oppose cleaner coal.

The PRC’s chief goal is to reduce conventional sulfur pollution from coal — which it has suffered terribly from — not to cut into greenhouse gases. The US addressed the issue of sulfur emissions nearly two decades ago with the creation of the Acid Rain program.

Despite lavish spending, China has struggled to follow suit. Environmental improvements are often not utilized fully, as with renewable energy projects never connected to the national grid. On coal, while new plants are being built, old, dirtier plants are not being closed. Reliance on coal is increasing: on official statistics, the proportion of energy generated by coal fell for the first twenty years of reform but has risen this decade as economic growth outstrips the country’s ability to use other forms of energy.

In a battle to meet the main objective of reducing sulfur emissions, carbon emissions are not a priority. The NYT article heralds a drop in the projected annual rate of increase in China’s carbon emissions from 3.2% to 3%. As China’s carbon emissions are now notably larger than America’s, this leaves us needing to cut our emissions close to 4% annually just to offset the PRC’s ostensibly lower rate of climb. A sustained 4% annual cut is far more aggressive than even the costliest proposal in front of the Obama Administration.

Gross spending numbers should not obscure the bottom line: China remains entirely unwilling to sacrifice its development model for the sake of reducing greenhouse gases.