What to Think of China’s Carbon Intensity Target?
Source:Chief Editor, CCEN   Date:2009-12-08   Author:Tom Pellman

On November 27, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled the county’s first-ever firm target to curb greenhouse gas emissions. China will reduce its carbon intensity – the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of GDP – 40-45% by 2020. This was the “notable margin” referenced by President Hu Jintao last month at the UN meeting in New York.


Reducing carbon intensity – a metric unique to China – does not necessarily result in lower overall emissions since it is tied to GDP growth. Experts estimate that if China’s economy continues to grow by 8% over the next decade, CO2 emissions will be about 90% higher in 2020 than they were in 2005.


As Wen Jiabao heads to Copenhagen this week, he will undoubtedly hold up the target as proof that his country is taking concrete steps to curb greenhouse gasses domestically, even if an international, legally binding agreement on global warming is out of the question.


But is it enough? That question has been ricocheting around the blogosphere, think-tank websites and environment conferences for the last week. Some praised the move as an ambitious and unprecedented goal for a developing country. Others dismissed the target as “business as usual,” saying it continued the trajectory of carbon intensity reductions China had already been achieving. They argue that China’s efforts reducing carbon emissions in the next decade will essentially be no different than the status quo.


While it is true that the country lowered its carbon intensity by 50% from 1993 to 2003 (a similar trajectory as the new 2020 target), Beijing did not commit to that ahead of time. In other words, had China not cut its carbon intensity by that much, no one would have been faulted. Now, that’s changed. Now, there are expectations.


Furthermore, comparing 1993-2003’s carbon intensity drop with the next 10 years is slightly misleading. During the second half of that span, many of China’s dirtiest factories were shuttered and basic efficiencies raised – the low-hanging fruit of carbon-use improvements. The next decade will see China undertaking much more ambitious projects to squeeze efficiency where it is more difficult to do so.


This commitment will also put pressure on China to ramp up domestic standards for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of carbon emissions as they make progress toward the goal. The government took pains to emphasize that the country would track progress toward the 2020 target domestically, without international verification. If China wants the world to consider it a leader in addressing the causes of climate change, it knows an accurate MRV system is a prerequisite.


So, it is welcome news to hear that China has agreed to cooperate with the International Energy Agency to establish "principles for improving data transparency" and help "strengthen China's energy statistical system." In addition, carbon reduction projects that receive international financing will be open to external MRV, a subtle improvement.


I don’t agree with those arguing that China’s 2020 target offers nothing new. There is vision and change in the way China’s leadership is addressing the issue of climate change. China is changing, and cleaning up bit by bit.


Still, it’s going to take a bigger effort than has ever been seen. Just as people are fond of musing about how the scale of China’s economic rise is unparalleled in history, its environmental efforts will have to be unparalleled as well if we hope to keep the planet inhabitable.

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