Global Policy Forum

China's Carbon Commitment - Low but Sure


By Antoaneta Bezlova

November 27, 2009

China and the United States are wrestling to claim leadership during the upcoming climate change talks in Copenhagen, unveiling proposals to cut greenhouse gases one after the other this week and setting the stage for some tough negotiations. But gauntlets thrown, both face challenges in achieving their pledged targets.

China-the world's third largest economic power and its largest carbon polluter-unveiled its first specific targets to slow carbon emissions. It also announced that premier Wen Jiabao would attend the United Nations summit on global climate change in Copenhagen next month.

The announcement came a day after Washington put its own proposal for reducing emissions on the negotiating table for the first time and said that President Barack Obama would join the meeting.

"At a time like this, everyone wants to take the high moral ground and no one wants to be blamed should talks in Copenhagen fail," said Wu Changhua, Greater China director for Climate Group, a Britain-based non-profit organization.

But the two proposals differ substantially. The United States-the country with the highest per capita emissions-pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and by 83 percent by 2050. It is the first firm commitment made by a U.S. administration on emissions reduction, which experts nevertheless say falls short on recommendations by the U.N. climate panel.

China's own commitment is deemed wanting. Instead of promising to cut overall emissions by a certain date, the communist state said it would reduce emissions in proportion to the overall size of its economy.

The Chinese State Council, or Cabinet, said China would aim to cut carbon intensity-the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product-by a range of 40 to 45 percent by 2020. Given the size and rapid growth of Chinese economy, this essentially means that emissions could still go up but not at the same rate as before.

"We will have to pay a high price to reach this target," Xie Zhenhua, deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commissions, the country's top planning body, said at a press conference Thursday. Beijing added a condition to its pledge-it would be a domestic commitment, incorporated into the country's mid- and long-term development plans and verified by domestic means. Although a voluntary one, it is internationally binding, Xie Zhenhua added.

"As we have made this commitment, well, Chinese people stick to their word," Xie told the press. The Thursday event originally scheduled for Friday was brought forward to follow on the heels of the U.S. announcement of its emission targets.

"Given the urgency and magnitude of the climate change crisis, China needs stronger measures to tackle climate change," said Ailun Yang of Greenpeace China. "This is a significant announcement at a very important point in time. But China could do more."

As a developing country, China is exempt from caps on its emissions and maintains this should remain a founding principle of any new deal that comes out of Copenhagen to replace the existing Kyoto Protocol.

Yet China has been spurred into action by a series of new announcements by other emerging countries, which have all manifested readiness to act. Several big developing nations like Brazil and Indonesia have all pledged to reduce their emissions. South Korea said it would set a reduction target of 21 to 30 percent, whatever happens in Copenhagen.

China's emission targets appear to be in line with what has already been planned to steer the country on a path to greener and more sustainable growth. Instead of aiming for drastic cuts that may put brakes on economic expansion, the government plans to rev up investment in renewable, nuclear and clean coal energy, as well as continuing to improve the efficiency of its energy use.

Some analysts believe that although China's targets appear to be on the lower end, the undertaken commitment is huge in terms of implementation. "It is a very political process, and 40 percent reduction will be a huge commitment," said Wu Changhua.

"In China, if the president says it, we know it will de done. In the U.S., it does not necessarily mean action," she said, referring to the battle faced by the U.S. administration to get any reached agreement in Copenhagen through the U.S. Congress.

Beijing insists that the West, which it says is historically responsible for the accumulated emissions in the atmosphere, should take the initiative to negotiate and implement a deal. Chinese officials have proposed that developed nations contribute one percent of gross domestic product to subsidize efforts by poorer countries to reduce emissions.

Announcing China's new targets, Xie Zhenhua said Beijing now expects "real action" by the West on funding and technical assistance before the Copenhagen meeting.

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