The Chinese government sees climate change as far more than a risk on the horizon — it represents a direct threat to the ruling party and to the country's national security, says international business and security consultant Andrew K.P. Leung.
With that in mind, it wasn't a surprise that the Chinese government today announced its first official 2020 carbon emissions target, Leung said.
"In the West, when we refer to climate change, it is in the context of a looming ... risk to the trees and for ourselves and our children's children.
The stability of the Chinese government depends on its ability to deliver some 20 million new jobs a year, every year, in a country containing about a sixth of the world's population, Leung explained.
"China has to grow very, very fast," he said. "Urbanization creates more jobs than agriculture, so China needs to push urbanization very, very quickly, especially in the provinces. And for that, China needs energy."
China currently gets most of its energy from fossil fuels. The country is rich in coal, but coal is highly polluting and threatens the health of China's increasingly urbanized workforce. In its cities, air quality is poor.
Fresh water supplies, needed for both health and producing energy, are also threatened with increasing competition from India as the Himalayan glaciers melt due to climate change.
It is in China's interests to diversify away from fossil fuels and to urbanize as cleanly as possible, Leung argues.
He notes that China has already started to do this. It has become a world leader in solar and hydroelectric power, and it is a growing force in wind power.
The 2020 carbon intensity target announced today by the State Council takes those efforts a step farther. The target is a 40-45 percent cut in CO2 emissions from 2005 levels relative to gross domestic product, so it won't mean an actual drop in emissions unless China's economy stops growing at its current rapid pace, but it will slow the growth of emissions.
"China is now seizing the high ground. It is a very good signal in the run up to Copenhagen," Leung said. "During Obama's visit at the APEC conference, signals were being sent out and interpreted as if America has given up on coming to something meaningful in Copenhagen. There are lots of noises among the developing countries in particular sounding a very strident note."
In announcing its setting of a carbon intensity target, which had been discussed for several years, the State Council described the move as "a voluntary action" taken by the Chinese government "based on our own national conditions" and "a major contribution to the global effort in tackling climate change," the official state news agency Xinhua reported.
That "binding goal" is to be written into China's social and economic development plans. To meet it, the State Council said it would work toward a target of 15 percent of the nation's primary energy coming from renewable energy sources and nuclear power by 2020.
It also said the government would invest more in the research and development of energy efficiency, "clean coal" and carbon capture and storage technologies; that it would increase the size of forested lands in China by 40 million hectares by 2020; and that "laws, regulations and standards would be formulated and fiscal, taxation, pricing and financial measures would be introduced to manage and monitor the implementation of those laws and regulations," Xinhua reported.
"Appropriate handling of the climate change issue is of vital interest to China's social and economic development and people's fundamental interests, as well as the welfare of all the people in the world and the world's long-term development," the State Council said.
Both the State Council and Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, in discussing the plan today with France's environment minister, also stressed that developing nations such as China place great importance on future global climate agreements continuing both the Kyoto Protocol and the principle that any international climate agreement recognize "common but differentiated responsibilities" among nations.
Leung sees China's announcement as offering of another path at next month's Copenhagen meeting that could lead to binding targets.
"China has already taken the lead in coming up with these targets," he told SolveClimate. "I think there's a fair chance the world can agree on binding targets."