China sets target for emission cuts
Moves could signal progress in climate talks

By Juliet Eilperin
Friday, November 27, 2009

China announced Thursday that it will lower its carbon emissions relative to the size of its economy by as much as 45 percent by 2020, the official New China News Agency reported, and that Premier Wen Jiabao will participate in international climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month.

The move by the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter to announce a near-term target of a 40 to 45 percent reduction, coming a day after President Obama set U.S. climate goals for the talks, suggests a possible breakthrough in Denmark next month in the long-stalled climate negotiations. But the State Council's announcement that China will cut its carbon output relative to economic growth, using 2005 as a baseline, fell short of the 50 or 55 percent cut many world leaders had hoped Beijing would make.

Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, 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. Carbon intensity is a measure that captures the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of gross domestic product.

"It does not move them beyond business as usual," Levi said. "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."

The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, welcomed "the leadership China is bringing to this negotiation," while noting that it will be "disappointing to some" that the cuts did not go further.

Others, however, hailed China's commitment as a step the country had not been willing to take before.

China is not obligated to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions under the current framework for the U.N.-sponsored negotiations. But it is expected to account for 50 percent of the growth in global emissions over the next 20 years, making its output nearly 60 percent higher than U.S. output by 2020.

Any future climate treaty will be ineffective unless China agrees to make deep cuts.

Given China's projected growth rates, its emission levels are expected to rise even under the plan the New China News Agency outlined on Thursday. Still, any effort China makes to curb its carbon footprint will have an enormous impact.

According to the D.C.-based Center for Clean Air Policy, China's goal to cut its carbon intensity by 20 percent by 2010 would result in a 1.6 billion ton cut in emissions.

Levi, using data from the Energy Information Administration, said that under this plan, China's overall emission levels would still grow 72 to 88 percent by 2020, about the same amount they would have increased anyway, given efficiencies expected as the country's economy becomes more advanced.

"The big unknown is how fast China's going to grow," said Joe Romm, who edits the blog for the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund. He noted, however, that the government may make deeper cuts because it tends to ratchet up its energy goals. Just recently, he said, China tripled its target for wind energy production. "China has a history of strengthening these targets," he said.

Yvo de Boer, who will run the Copenhagen talks as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, welcomed both the recent U.S. and Chinese policy proposals. The White House said the United States will cut its emissions "in the range of 17 percent" by 2020, relative to 2005 levels.

"The U.S. commitment to specific midterm emission cut targets and China's commitment to specific action on energy efficiency can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement," de Boer said.

At the same time, he said, "we need continued strong ambition and leadership. In particular, we still await clarity from industrialized nations on the provision of large-scale finance to developing countries for immediate and long-term climate action."

The European Commission voiced a mixed reaction to the U.S. climate targets, which would reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions by 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The commission said the targets have "positive elements" but are "lower than we would like." European leaders have called on industrialized nations to collectively cut their emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020, using 1990 emission levels as a reference point.

In an interview Wednesday, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said he had urged Obama to attend the Copenhagen talks and set international climate goals to get "China and India and others to step up" and set emission targets. "It seemed to me fairly straightforward the president ought to lead on this," Kerry said. Obama will spend one day at the talks, which run Dec. 7 to 18.

Connie Hedegaard, Danish minister for the climate conference, said Thursday that while "we must analyze more carefully" the Chinese proposal and that the U.S. target for 2020 "might not be what the world has been hoping for," both initiatives prove that "the Copenhagen deadline works."

"One by one, governments from all over the world are delivering before the climate conference next month. Last week, we saw concrete targets from Brazil and South Korea, and Russia improved its bid," Hedegaard said. "All across the globe, things are moving."

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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