Guardian Article on China Emissions Plan Amounts to Wishful Thinking

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Those who stumbled across the recent Guardian article "China Considers Setting Targets for Carbon Emissions" probably did not fall off of their seats like I did. But at the very least you might have involuntarily raised an eyebrow, or two, and thought "huh, now that’s a game changer."

For people who monitor developments in climate negotiations religiously, this article was practically heaven sent. But, upon closer examination, it proved little more than a manipulated quote and a very sexy, if misleading argument.

Beijing-based Jonathan Watts does not normally produce rubbish. He is an insightful, verging on conservative, journalist whose China stories tend to report developments which many on the ground or those familiar with China know of, but outsiders do not.

For those of us who, like Watts, depend on China-side developments in climate negotiations and other environmental news for our livelihood, the last three weeks have been a time of hunger. Ever since Chinese leader Hu and President Obama met in London during the G20, China has made nary a peep about the 500 pound white elephant that lives in Scandinavia, also known as Copenhagen.

What better way to wake people up Sunday morning than with the news that "China considers setting targets for emissions"?

However, the devil is in the details, as they say, so let’s take a look at this article.

The Chinese government is for the first time considering setting targets for carbon emissions, a significant development that could help negotiations on a Kyoto successor treaty at Copenhagen later this year, the Guardian has learned.

Intriguing news. But, unless things have changed dramatically since the beginning of Communist China, if not earlier, the government typically does not rely on foreign newspapers to carry internal party changes on specific political positions. That’s the role of China’s state-run media, and only after the news has been sufficiently sanitized of detail and intrigue to warrant it all but completely pedestrian, rather than newsworthy.

Watts goes on to say:

Su Wei, a leading figure in China’s climate change negotiating team, said that officials were considering introducing a national target that would limit emissions relative to economic growth in the country’s next five-year plan from 2011.

That sentence starts factually enough. Su Wei is, indeed, a "leading figure in China’s climate change negotiating team." His attendance in Bonn and various comments made on the public record (which we’ve written about before) attest to Su’s importance in the negotiation process.

But did he tell Watts "officials were considering introducing a national target that would limit emissions" in the next five-year plan?

Maybe. But, the key is deciphering the intended meaning from what is implied.

China’s current five-year plan will conclude in 2010. Officials from the NDRC will meet well in advance to decide the policies that will guide the 12th five-year plan, from 2011-2015, suggesting that the timing is not totally unaligned with the Copenhagen schedule.

However, considering how previous five-year plans have been formulated, it would be very unusual to announce plans and features of the next five-year plan externally. Moreover, to do so even as early as December be premature by Chinese government standards, as details of new five-year plans typically do not surface more than a year prior to implementation, at the annual legislative NPC session.

Finally, we have the piece de resistance, a direct quote from Su Wei. He says, referring to emissions targets:

"It is an option. We can very easily translate our [existing] energy reduction targets to carbon dioxide limitation. China hasn’t reached the stage where we can reduce overall emissions, but we can reduce energy intensity and carbon intensity."

Again, it is critical to understand what he is saying here. Offering emissions targets as an “option” is, essentially, another way of saying that nothing has been ruled out. The next comment on China’s ability to repackage existing targets is true, and it is well worth acknowledging that China has already set ambitious targets. His final comment is noteworthy for its subtleties.

Reduction of emissions, Su clearly states, is something China is not ready to do. This is 100% consistent with China’s current position as it’s been reported and stated publicly by other officials.

The commitment to reduce energy and carbon intensities should not be interpreted, by Watts or anyone else, as a commitment to reduce emissions. It is precisely a commitment to reduce the amount of emissions per unit of GDP. Under this course of action, so long as China’s GDP increases, emissions will increase as well, albeit at a slower rate if lower intensity is achieved.

While Watt’s argument is compelling, and one that I truly hope has some meat to it, it is unfortunately more likely that the statement used to support the premise of the article was taken out of context and provided without any analytical buttress.

The rest of Watt’s article continues without direct tie-in or supporting evidence. He references an academic and economist named Hu Angang, who Watts calls “a government adviser,” who has openly called on China to start cutting overall emissions from 2020 (Hu’s “A New Approach Copenhagen” can be read here).

Charlie McElwee, a China-based environmental lawyer, eloquently and astutely characterized Hu and his climate commitment manifesto in a recent article on Climate Progress. He said:

"Some will argue that China can and must to more. Hu Angang … has recently proposed that China reduce its annual emissions to 2.2 Gigatons of CO2 by 2030. Hu Angang is the very model of a global citizen, and his proposal is cogent, sincere, and heroic; it also has zero chance of success."

Watts does little more to qualify the Hu proposal besides admitting it is “a minority view … at odds with China’s official negotiating stance.”

Those who know about how how domestic and foreign policy is made in China see that statement for what it is: an admission that Hu’s opinions are just opinions, and ones with little or no persuasive power over China’s decision makers at that.

But that is not what Watts would like you to believe. As such, the article in question represents misguided judgment, at best, suffused with at least a tad of disingenuous reporting.

That said, China climate observers will privately tell you that while China has taken a firm line insisting that developed countries “lead the way” on emissions reductions and not block countries like China’s “right to development,” it is not unlikely that China will eventually adopt a more cooperative stance.

However, the more important question remains not whether China will soften its position but whether it will “pull its weight” by making a meaty enough commitment, the probability of which currently seems slight. Multilateral coordination on climate will be rendered ineffective without meaningful emissions reductions from the U.S. and China, say climate scientists.

And so, while there is still room to be hopeful that China will change its current position, and may possibly commit to emissions reductions, there is so far little evidence to support this argument.

Next time let’s hope the folks at Guardian can separate wishful thinking from accurate reporting.