Environment, Talking Point

Emission impossible?

China makes carbon intensity commitment on eve of climate conference

Emission impossible?

Cuts in Copenhagen: can China curtail its use of these?

Three feet of ice is not the result of one cold day, the Chinese proverb notes. And change isn’t expected overnight either when it is global warming – rather than freezing – that is the issue in question.

But are there signs that some progress might be being made? The optimists hope so, with America and China both announcing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions last week. Both Obama and Premier Wen Jiaobao will also be attending the Copenhagen climate summit.

Just as well too; without Chinese and US leadership, efforts to contain climate change are bound to fail.

What is the Chinese pledge?

That it would reduce carbon intensity (the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP) by up to 45% by 2020 (from 2005 levels).

Hu Jintao had hinted that a policy commitment was on the cards in a statement in late September, in which he promised a “notable margin” of improvement. Now he has delivered the number itself, in the lead up to the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, which will run for two weeks from next Monday.

Is it an impressive target?

Beijing has said it will face “special hardships” in reaching the carbon intensity goal. But some think China is well on the way to achieving it, and could even be halfway there by the end of next year. In part that is because recent efforts to improve energy efficiency have proven pretty successful. China is also making progress on its plans to switch 15% of its power generation to renewable sources by 2020.

Still, consultancy McKinsey has pointed out that carbon efficiency in China has improved 4.9% annually over the past two decades. That leads some environmental groups to talk about Hu’s commitment more as a case of “business as usual” (something likely to be achieved through existing policy) rather than a groundbreaking step.

But it seems harsh to penalise the Chinese for advances already underway. Julian Wong, an energy policy analyst and author of the blog Green Leap Forward, also thinks that it will be tough to keep up the pace once the “low-hanging fruit has been plucked”. Other countries have seen their carbon intensity fall on reducing reliance on heavy industry and manufacturing. That is not a scenario that many people expect to see in China any time soon.

But still no absolute cap?

That was never on the table. Beijing’s offer is fundamentally different to the pledges from the US and the EU in that it is not an agreement to cut emissions, but rather to slow the rate at which they grow.

The US has said that it will cut emissions 17% on 2005 levels by 2020 (although this still needs approval in the Senate) and the EU has agreed to a reduction of 20% below 1990 levels by 2020. Previously China has called for reductions more in line with the Kyoto protocol, which proposed 25-40% cuts for developed economies.

Of course China is already the number one emitter in absolute terms, and its emissions are likely to surge in future. According to McKinsey forecasts, even in a scenario in which most of the existing targets in efficient energy and cleaner power are achieved, China will still see its current emissions more than double by 2020.

China trails the rest, then?

Beijing argues that its carbon footprint and that of developed nations should be treated differently. One tactic is to urge comparisons on the basis of per capita data, as US emissions (at 18.7 tonnes per head in 2007) are more than four times Chinese ones. Another is to take the longer view. Cumulatively since 1890, US emissions tot up to more than double China’s.

It insists too that, as a developing country, it faces growth imperatives that make absolute caps unfair, especially when mature economies faced no such constraints themselves in the past.

In fact, keeping to the Kyoto principle of excluding developing countries from binding emission cuts is a priority. Beijing has also made clear that its own carbon intensity targets are a voluntary action and not binding internationally.

Indeed, their non-binding nature is one of a list of “non-negotiable” items agreed last weekend with South Africa, India and Brazil in advance of the Danish summit (others include opposition to international measurement and verification, and to the use of climate change as a trade barrier). The four countries may “co-ordinate” their exit from negotiations in the event that these non-negotiables are questioned, warned India’s representative at the discussions.

Another of the non-negotiables is an item termed “unsupported mitigation actions”. The point is that hitting the 45% carbon target will require at least $30 billion annually in investment over each of the next 10 years, Zou Ji vice-director at Renmin University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources told 21CN Business Herald last week.

So someone needs to help pay and developing countries have talked about funding financial support through a 1% levy on rich nation GDP. US climate envoy Todd Stern thinks it an expectation “untethered from reality“.

But why not willingly transfer the full range of clean-tech IP from overseas, the Herald asks? It reckons there are at least 40 “climate-friendly” technologies that would help China in its green initiatives but which are not being made available by their foreign owners.

So more of the onus on developed countries?

Yes. And China has been successful in PR terms in shifting much of the spotlight for the climate change deadlock back to the US. Highlighting its efforts in switching to more renewable power has helped. So did the Bush administration’s refusal to engage on global warming more widely.

But Obama’s announcement on plans to cap emissions made for a potential new departure; so was it coincidence that Hu announced China’s policy reforms the following day? Was this a coordinated plan, hatched in secret during Obama’s trip to China earlier this month, or a case of Beijing reacting to his pledge, in not wanting to lose too much of the initiative?

In terms of framing the debate, Beijing has also pushed the notion of ‘consumption emissions’ – or the belief that shoppers who buy Chinese products should bear some of the responsibility for the greenhouse gas generated during their manufacture and export.

These emissions constituted at least 30% of China’s total in 2005, according to research published in the journal Nature Geoscience last month.

It’s a view that chimes with other developing nations – that richer countries have failed to live up to their Kyoto pledges but are now trying to rope poorer nations into new, binding agreements.

Hence this week’s call from the Global Times (ready, as ever, with a forthright opinion) that developed nations should “stop passing the buck” and recognise that the solution to global warming “is not the poorer countries helping the rich to maintain their high-energy consuming life.”

So what can we expect from Copenhagen?

Expectations are not especially high and China’s special representative in Copenhagen, Yu Qingtai, has said that there needs to be some “serious soul-searching” if the conference is to succeed.

Even then, a formal treaty looks unlikely. But a clearer organisational framework may well emerge, as well as a stronger sense of political commitment from the major countries to deliver more substantive reform before the Kyoto treaty lapses in 2012.

Of course, any agreement must have buy-in from both China and the US. But the top two emitters remain locked in a rather halting dance, lurching between talk of greater coordination and a less constructive competitive instinct.

Both seem to expect the other to show more “leadership” (for which read, ‘make more concessions’). But neither side wants to appear as the laggard in the debate either – hence the flurry of announcements in the lead up to Copenhagen.

Still, with India announcing yesterday that it is likewise committing to a carbon intensity target perhaps there are signs that, even if they are the environment’s odd couple, China and the US can shape the agenda after all.

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