China made big news this week when it announced that at the upcoming climate negotiations it will offer to reduce its "energy intensity by 40-45 percent by 2020, relative to 2005 levels. Some see this as a positive development while others are left scratching their heads and asking, "What does 'energy intensity' even mean?" Well, first a definition. Energy intensity refers to energy output per unit of gross domestic product. So the Chinese are saying that as their booming economy continues to boom, they will reduce the amount of energy it takes to create one yuan. Climate negotiators will now have to decide if China's pledge is measurable, reportable and verifiable--MRV. It's not that China can't be trusted; it's that it's metric--energy intensity--is not easily measured like emissions are from smokestacks and tailpipes. Also the pledge is not binding, so there would be no consequences for non-compliance.
"Although this is a domestic voluntary action, it is binding," said Xie. "As we've made this commitment, well, Chinese people stick to their word."
But garnering enough international trust to fix a new legally binding climate treaty will not be easy when there is so much wider Western unease about Chinese intentions on trade, security and the environment.
Another worry is the quality of data in a country that has ingrained habits of secrecy, with officials tempted to bend statistics that can decide chances of promotion and demotion.
"I think that, unfortunately, this is one of those cultural clashes that could be difficult," said Charles McElwee, an environmental and energy lawyer with Squire Sanders in Shanghai, who follows China's climate change policies.
"China has this deep-seated desire not to have other countries poking around into what it considers its internal affairs ... Westerners tend to think, 'If this is your commitment, then put your money where your mouth is'."
Stay tuned to see what, if anything, China will do to convince the world that's pledge is in fact MRV.