Mixed reaction to US and China emissions goals

Posted: 27 November 2009

The announcement yesterday by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that his country plans to cut carbon-emissions intensity 40 to 45 per cent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels and President Obama's earlier emission targets, have been generally welcomed, but not universally so. The details of China's position will be presented at the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark early next month.

"As we head towards Copenhagen, the world's two largest emitters have stepped up to the plate at the highest political level," said Jonathan Lash, president of the Washington-baased World Resources Institute. "This shows that international engagement on climate change can produce real results."

With the previous day's announcement by President Barack Obama that he will call for a US emission-reduction target of 17 per cent below 2005 levels in 2020, nearly all industrialised countries and major emerging economies have now announced emissions goals or major action plans on climate.

"The timing of these announcements underscores how important these countries are to each other. To reach the levels of commitment of Mexico, Brazil, and many other countries, and those necessary to meet global temperature targets, China and the US will eventually need to go further in their pledges." Lash said. "But the road to an international agreement is now open more than ever."

'Ambitious target'

Carbon intensity is the emissions produced per unit of economic output, and China's fast-growing economy means that absolute emissions in China will rise during this period. However, China's goal is in line with what the International Energy Agency (IEA) thinks is needed to keep global greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations on a path that gives the world a chance of keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius, averting the worst impacts of climate change.

WRI experts calculate that, under President Obama's goal of a 17 per cent reduction in GHG emissions, the US would see slightly more than a 40 per cent improvement in carbon intensity, similar to China's ambitions. These estimates are slightly imprecise because the Institute's calculations are for only energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions. "They are also based on assumptions about GDP growth. Nonetheless, they suggest that both countries are committed to ambitious goals" WRI said.

To meet the target, China appears committed to implement 'ambitious' energy-efficiency and fuel-switching policies, WRI adds. Since most renewable and alternate non-fossil energy is in the power sector, this would mean a much higher percentage of total electricity generation needs to come from non-fossil fuel sources, including renewables and nuclear energy.

'Hype and hyperbole'

By contrast, the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said "The hype surrounding the just announced emissions reduction targets of the United States and China is just that: hype and hyperbole.

"The spin-masters are at work to show that US and China have taken on strong action to break the unity of the developing countries. The developing countries are asking for tough and drastic action by industrialised counties at the upcoming Copenhagen conference of parties, which is just not acceptable to the rich countries" says Kushal Yadav, co-ordinator of the climate change programme at the Centre.

"The US has announced an absolute reduction target of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. This translates into a mere 3 per cent reduction below the 1990 levels. Science demands that the developed countries cut their emission by 40 per cent below 1990 levels. In fact, the US proposal if accepted is a death-knell for the Kyoto Protocol, which in its first commitment period (ending 2012) had asked for more - 5.2 per cent reduction over 1990 levels by all industrialised countries. US is offering to do less than this in the next commitment, and this proposal, if accepted will mean that the world cannot avoid catastrophic changes and climate change disasters.

Global offsets

CSE also complained thet the proposal allows for huge amounts of international offsets to be used to meet the target. "The original Waxman-Markey bill allows up to 1 billion tonnes of offset credits every year. This means that the country as a whole, using this huge amount of international offset, does not have to reduce emissions till 2026.

"Worse, the US targets remain domestic targets and they are not under a multi-lateral legally binding agreement. This is also part of the US strategy on climate change - to kill the Kyoto Protocol and to work towards a single agreement, post Copenhagen, based on a pledge and review system."

China targets are dismissed as 'business as usual' in terms of total emissions by CSE. Its energy intensity target meant that China's emissions will continue to grow but at a slower rate but how much is actually achieved will depend on the rate at which the Chinese economy grows. In other words, if the economy grows at 7 per cent per annum, then the emissions of China, after accounting for the 40-45 per cent energy intensity reduction target will grow by 50 per cent over 2005 levels. If the economy grows at 10 per cent per annum, then the emissions will increase by 150 per cent over 2005 levels. This compares to the IEA business-as-usual forecast that China's emissions would grow by about 88 per cent between 2005 to 2020.

Nevertheleaas, it seems that China will do more than the US to reduce its carbom emisions. China had already announced that it would cut energy intensity per unit of GDP by 20 per cent by 2020. Now it has doubled its target.

Analysts explain that this will require the country to take hard steps to restructure its industrial growth to reduce and cut emissions, says CSE. "If this is the case then China would have done much more to reduce the energy intensity of its economy and reduced emissions, than the US, which is proposing to do little domestically and make up most of its meagre target by buying cheap offsets from the developing world."