Chinese climate negotiator Su Wei at a UN conference
A member of the Chinese delegation to this year's talks at Copenhagen have said that China could "cap" greenhouse gas emissions, an approach that up until now has been left off the bargaining table, according to the Guardian. Chinese officials have said that as their country continues to industrialize, capping CO2 and other greenhouse gases is at odds with the push to raise living standards, and was instead the responsibility of Western nations. Those countries have countered that if China didn't cap its emissions, caps elsewhere would prove ineffective.
But there's a difference between a cap on carbon intensity -- which is what the negotiator floated -- and overall carbon emissions.While a cap on emissions is absolute, a cap on intensity is relative. Because China's economic growth continues at a clip, reducing emissions by 20 percent per unit of GDP from 2005 to 2010 would be an improvement, but still result in a net increase.
"We can very easily translate our [existing] energy reduction targets to carbon dioxide limitation," Chinese climate change negotiator Su Wei told the Guardian. "China hasn't reached the stage where we can reduce overall emissions, but we can reduce energy intensity and carbon intensity."
Emissions intensity, like energy intensity, is a measure of production of emissions per unit of GDP or another resource, like Megawatt hours of electricity. This kind of metric is already used in China's current energy reduction targets, which call for a reduction in energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 percent by 2010. Officials from the country's National Development and Reform Commission are putting together ideas for the 12th five-year plan, from 2011-2015, which will likely arrive just in time for Copenhagen.
But apart from being speculation, Su Wei's hypothetical amounts to a less favorable option than it might seem at first glance. Ultimately, as Mr. Wei and the rest of China's negotiators make louder calls for help from the West and demand that the US take a good hard look in the mirror, they remain negative about the chance for a Chinese cap on carbon emissions.
For talks at Copenhagen to be successful, the U.S. should commit to serious reductions in greenhouse gases by 2030 — like the 42% below 2005 levels that the Waxman-Markey bill has suggested.
But for those caps to mean something -- and for China to become a sincere leader in climate change solutions -- it will also need to make a commitment to a cap in emissions, not just a reduction in their growth.
The US energy secretary recently held up one controversial stick to get China to act -- the prospect of an import tariff imposed on embedded carbon emissions.
An agreeable, if complex, cap by China might be one that takes into account emissions per capita, which are still dramatically lower than those in the US, and its level of development.
The Need for Reverse Speed and the Cost
Currently, notes Climate Progress, it's expected that from 2007 to 2015, "China will increase its coal production by an amount equal to two-thirds of the entire coal consumption of the United States - an amount that surpasses all of the coal consumed today in Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America."
Su Wei is also skeptical about China's ability to improve its energy and carbon intensity, saying that the low-hanging fruit "has already been plucked." But with each megawatt hour of electricity requiring 868 kilograms of coal compared to coal-rich Mexico's 421 kilograms per megawatt hour, it seems that there's much room for greater efficiency.
According to a recent McKinsey study, "China's green revolution" (pdf) that Charles McElwee mentions at Climate Progress, China could limit its CO2 to 7.8 Gigatons of CO2 in 2030 at an annual cost of US$46 billion from 2011 to 2015. From 2016-2020, US$192 billion per year will be required.
This would not, McElwee notes, "cripple its economy, strand millions in poverty, or leave the Chinese people 'in the dark' without electricity as Yu Qingtai, China’s climate ambassador, rather melodramatically put it recently." Plus the investment would result in positive economic returns, in addition to the benefits of cleaner air and water, lower health care costs, and decreased spending on adapting to climate change.
But again, even as some officials and opinion-makers in China recognize the moral need and value for China to limit its emissions, the chances of this kind of spending and goal remain low. Despite the sluggishness of China's policy making machine, let's hope the eight months until Copenhagen change those odds.
As Jonathan Watts writes in the Guardian:
...the debate on China's role in greenhouse gas reductions is widening. Last month, the Chinese Academy of Science reported that the country's carbon dioxide emissions relative to GDP should be reduced by 50% by 2020, and that total CO2 emissions should peak between 2030 and 2040 if the country introduced more stringent energy-saving policies and received more financial support and technology from overseas.
The Brookings Institution, a US thinktank, has pinpointed domestic reductions in emission intensity in China as a possible area of compromise with the US, which has made a greater effort to reach out to Beijing on climate change issues under President Barack Obama. The softening comes amid a flurry of talks between Chinese and US leaders and officials in Washington, London and Bonn.
"The message we have got is that the current US administration takes climate change seriously, that they recognise their historical responsibility and that they have the capacity to help developing countries address climate change," said Su. But he called on the US to go further than Obama's promise to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
Whether an agreement can be reached before the Copenhagen conference remains to be seen, but the debate inside China is moving into new areas. "Chinese leaders recognise China's responsibility. The question is whether or not they make a public commitment about how much they will do and by when," said Hu.