China announces targets for emissions cuts in run up to Copenhagen

frontpageingressimage_beijingsmog.jpeg Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Overall, negotiators and other observers of the Copenhagen process are disappointed with both China and the United States’ proposals.

But all likewise agree that any progress to be hoped for in Copenhagen depends on these two nations coming out of the tall grass with credible bid for reducing their national emissions.

As notable is that neither nation was bound by the Kyoto Protocol to offer emissions cuts at all, as neither nation ratified the treaty. Copenhagen’s main purpose it progress negotiations toward a successor to Kyoto, which expires in 2013.

By focussing on energy efficiency, China’s exact target, according to China’s State Council, is to cut emissions as a percentage of economic output by 40 percent to 45 percent before 2020, compared with levels in 2005, the official New China news agency reported.

The Chinese offer, which focuses on energy efficiency, contrasts with the strategy of the United States, the European Union and most other nations to reduce total emissions: Rather than say exactly how much it would cut emissions by within a certain time frame – as most other countries, including the United States, have – China said it would cut pollution in proportion to the overall size of its economy.

China has referred to this method as reducing its carbon intensity – a measure that captures the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of gross domestic product.

China, with its enormous population and pace of economic growth surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter two years ago.

Bellona has greeted the Chinese announcement – coming some two weeks before the summit – with cautious but encouraging enthusiasm.

“This gives hope that results will be achieved in negotiations in which decisions can actually be made together,” said Svend Søyland Bellona’s international advisor.

Bellona USA Director Jonthan Temple agreed, adding, “It’s encouraging that China has come forward with a greenhouse gas reduction target in advance of the negotiations in Copenhagen. The targets proposed by China and other countries are not ambitious enough, but COP15 will be a negotiation where, hopefully, it will be possible to ratchet up the overall level of ambition.”

He added that, “Everyone at COP15 will welcome the constructive presence of China, the US and other major emitters at the talks. Global greenhouse gas emissions have been rising for too long. Our goal should be to turn the ship around.”

In addition to the announcement of the kind and method by which China intends to reach its climate emissions cut goals, it also said it will be sending Prime Minister Wen Jiabao – instead of President Hu Jintao – to speak at the summit.

China’s Foreign Ministry would not comment to Bellona Web on why it was sending its Prime Minister instead of President HU. Søyland suggested that this choice makes no principle difference.

“The alternative is that they would send no one,” he said, “That China is represented at a sufficiently high level is gratifying.

It was unclear whether the timing of China’s announcement and who it chose to send was coincidental with Obama’s announcement Wednesday, though the Chinese have been preparing an opening position ahead of international talks on climate change in Copenhagen next month, but diplomats who spoke with Bellona Web said that Beijing has tried to avoid the appearance that it was directly being influenced by American decisions.

Nonetheless, a diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that without a high level political commitment from both countries, the talks, which are predicted to be difficult to begin with, “would have been impossible without the high profile participation of both China and the United States.”

A senior Obama administration official said that the United States had pressed hard for a public commitment from China and was relieved that it had delivered. But the official, who spoke anonymously because of the delicacy of the matter, called the carbon intensity figure “disappointing,” and said that the administration hoped it represented an ante that would be negotiated upward at Copenhagen or in subsequent talks.

The Chinese proposal to reduce so- carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent compared with 2005 levels means that emissions would still increase, though the rate would slow. That falls far short of what many in Europe and other nations had hoped for — an increase in energy efficiency of at least 50 percent.

Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed the sense of anti-climax speaking to The Washington Post.

He too called the announcement "disappointing," because the Energy Information Administration estimates that existing Chinese policies will already cut the nation’s carbon intensity by 45 to 46 percent.

"It does not move them beyond business as usual," Levi told The Post.

"The United States has put an ambitious path for emissions cuts through 2050 on the table. China needs to raise its level of ambition if it is going to match that. One can only hope that, now that China has made a proposal, negotiators are able to work out something better," he said.

Yet China’s arguments about balancing environmental concerns with economic growth resonate with other developing countries like India, and both countries propose slowing the growth of emissions relative to the growth of their economies.

The target announced Thursday “is not so low that China can get to it easily without actual effort, nor is it too high to believe,” Jin Jiaman, executive director of the Global Environmental Institute, an advocacy group based in Beijing, told the New York Times.

Charles Digges