China’s Emissions Targets: a (Non)Reductionist Approach

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The past week of events – from a U.S. Senate hearing, to remarks by China’s State Council, to high-level talks in Beijing – have scattered a layer of rich soil from which robust US-China cooperation on climate change might spring forth.

However, that soil is not uniform in content. The issue of quantifiable emissions reductions, central to continued bilateral discussions leading up to Copenhagen, is anything but homogeneously understood, as recent events demonstrate.

Senate Hearing on U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate Change

On the heels of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry’s visit to Beijing, which culminated in a vague-but-hopeful China-U.S. Clean Energy Initiatives Agreement, Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing in Washington on that topic.

Throughout the hearing, panelists stressed the importance of emissions reductions that are “measurable, reportable, and verifiable.” 

However, Kerry and at least one panelist differed in their perspectives on China’s capacity to deliver such reductions.

Kerry heaped praise upon Chinese energy initiatives, saying:

“The Chinese are beginning to realize that addressing climate change and pursuing sustainable energy policies is very much in their own national interest” and “I believe … we are going to see very significant reductions from China.”

Council on Foreign Relations scholar Elizabeth Economy appeared less convinced.

Identifying the road to those measurable, reportable and verifiable (MRV) reductions as “a long term process” and highlighting  institutional limitations, Economy guessed that, with regard to achieving quantifiable emissions reductions commitment, “the best” the U.S. should expect is “a framework for an agreement moving forward on MRV.”

State Council Meeting

Next, a June 6 report from China Daily, China’s state-owned news outlet, referenced remarks made at a meeting of the State Council, China’s highest executive body. Journalist Fu Jing wrote:

“China will put in place carbon dioxide emissions targets for its economic and social development programs” and “may be considering national goals for carbon dioxide levels when it maps its 12th five-year national development plan.”  

Though absent specific targets, the comment was significant. The five-year plan is China’s primary strategy for social and economic development and the dominant metric by which governance is measured. The 12th five-year plan will cover the years 2011-2015.

However, Director of the National Resource Defense Council’s China Environmental Law Project Alex Wang quickly suggested that something critical had been lost in translation.

Whereas the phrases “carbon dioxide emissions targets” and “national goals for carbon dioxide levels” used by the English-language China Daily suggest a possibility for baseline emissions reductions in China, the Chinese-language press announcement explicitly identified only “carbon dioxide intensity” (paifang qiangdu) as the target under consideration. 

Carbon intensity refers to the amount of emissions per unit of GDP. As we’ve pointed out before, reductions in carbon intensity would not a priori amount to reduced emissions. So long as China’s GDP grows, so, too, would emissions.

The clarification Wang makes is vital, as it demonstrates that China still does not intend to commit to emissions reductions.

In fact, speaking Thursday before reporters, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang definitively stated China will not accept binding cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions, adding:

“Given that, it is natural for China to have some increase in its emissions, so it is not possible for China in that context to accept a binding or compulsory target.”

U.S.-China Talks on Climate Coordination

Qin’s comments come just after this week’s discussions between the U.S. and China on clean energy and climate issues.

A retinue of officials from the White House, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and Treasury comprised the U.S. delegation to Beijing, which met with Vice Premier Li Keqiang and others.

For all the fanfare preceding and surrounding the talks, there was outward indication that no major breakthrough had occurred. More significantly, what exactly the U.S. expects when demanding China “to do more” may now be emerging, having undergone a possible change in theme as a result of the June 7-10 talks.

The latest remarks made by both Qin and U.S. climate change envoy Todd Stern indicate that the U.S. will not push for binding emissions targets from China.

After an interview with Stern, China Daily quoted the top U.S. climate negotiator as saying:

“We don’t expect China to take a national cap at this stage.”

That differs markedly from Stern’s tone in a speech last week before the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, where he discussed his planned trip to Beijing.

Stern stated then that China needed to take actions “that they commit to internationally, that they quantify and that are ambitious enough to be broadly consistent with the lessons of science.”

Scientists and practitioners have noted that without greenhouse gas mitigation from the world’s top two emitters – China and the United States – the efforts by other countries will be inadequate to slow global warming and avert more serious future consequences.

A document guiding UN climate negotiations in Bonn in March highlighted “convergence” on the need for long-term emissions cuts across developing and developed countries, and specifically asked China to commit to binding targets.

Amassing all the parts from the past week, it appears that China is no more willing to commit to reductions than it indicated previously, while the U.S. may be backing away from this request altogether. If this is the case, the ground on which meaningful climate commitments may be achieved, despite the appearance of fertility, may not yield the favorable results hoped for by many. 


See also:

Talk of Carbon Tariff Upsets China and Worries Climate Experts

China’s Climate Accounting Would Set Limits Based on Historical Emissions

China’s Smart Grid Ambitions Could Open Door to US-China Cooperation