China Will Cap Emissions Intensity: Your Move, U.S.

With the world watching, China's president Hu Jintao offered his country's biggest climate change initiative yet at the UN this morning, saying China would establish emissions intensity targets --not absolute targets, but cuts in emissions per unit of GDP.

Amidst a testy US-China climate dance, the targets represent a peace branch and a signal to other developing countries. They could achieve emissions reductions that are "measurable, reportable, and verifiable" -- a Copenhagen goal -- and could establish a framework for future emissions caps. But the carbon efficiency pledge lacks numbers, is not mandatory, and, while it would cut carbon output per GDP by a "notable margin" by 2020 compared to 2005 levels, it is not likely to cut China's overall emissions.

The China-U.S. carbon-cut dance continues. Now it's up to the U.S. to take the lead.There's plenty of room for China to be more carbon-efficient: China's growth in carbon emissions in 2005 grew twice as much as those of the United States. China has already made strides in carbon intensity cuts since 2005.

Hu made three other pledges, without giving numbers. China will massively increase the size of its forests, boost nuclear or non-fossil fuels to 15 percent of power by 2020 and work to develop a green economy.

The adoption of carbon intensity targets -- issued by the president no less -- could lead to cultural shifts in China, and bolster plans for a carbon trading system or a carbon tax.

"People in China will finally start saying 'what is a carbon economy?'," Yang Fuqiang, director of global climate solutions at the WWF Beijing office, told the Guardian.

China: Developed Countries First
Acknowledging that climate change "is an environmental issue but also, and more importantly, a development issue," Hu stressed that the "vast number" of developing nations were affected.

He also reiterated China's position on "common but differentiated responsibilities," the premise that developed countries should take the lead on fighting climate change and offer assistance to countries like China and India, which must focus on building greater wealth for their people.

But the reasoning often given by Chinese officials -- that citizens of developing nations have lower carbon emissions than those of Americans, for instance -- must contend with the fact that China is quickly breaking away from the U.S. as the world leader in CO2 output. And in some parts of China, emissions per capita are already estimated to exceed those of parts of Europe.

Still, China has previously indicated that substantial pledges on its part would depend on the U.S.'s own pledges. The result is a climate catch-22: both countries want the other to make cuts, but neither is yet willing to go first.

While targets for energy intensity and renewables are promising (China has also set a provisional goal of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020), and could eventually lead to absolute cuts, net emissions are still on path to grow. Consumer demand and electrical capacity is set to double by 2020. And it's unlikely that coal, which provides 80% of China's energy, will be disappearing anytime soon.

In other words, even China's slower growth in CO2 threatens to cancel out advances made elsewhere.

The Copenhagen Groundwork is Laid: U.S.'s Turn
Despite what that might mean for the prospects of a U.S. climate bill, the U.S. and China are already engaged in climate partnerships, driven as much by economic interest in the burgeoning clean technologies sector (see our post on yesterday's China-US discussion) as by political will.

While China and the U.S. are sounding tougher than ever on carbon emissions, climate talks between the two countries will need to move at more than a glacial pace in the next two months.

China's half-step today is as strong as could have been expected (On Hu's speech, Al Gore sees the glass "very much half-full.") To keep a Copenhagen deal from melting and inspire other climate cooperation around the world, it will be up to Obama to be even bolder.

More on China-US Climate Talks on TreeHugger
Live at the UN Summit on Climate Change
China and the U.S. Could Fix Climate -- If Leaders Let Them: Duke Energy CEO at Climate Week NY°C
Seeing a $1 Trillion Market, China-U.S. Greentech Initiative Could "Take Over the World"
China Considers a Limit on CO2 -- Sort Of

Tags: China | United Nations | United States

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