China unveils carbon target ahead of Copenhagen

China unveiled its first firm target to curb greenhouse gas emissions on Thursday, a carbon intensity goal that Premier Wen Jiabao will take to climate talks next month as his country’s central commitment.

The announcement came a day after the United States unveiled its proposal to cut greenhouse gases by 2020 and said President Barack Obama would attend the United Nations-led talks in Copenhagen.

China, the top emitter of greenhouse gases from human activity, said Wen would also attend the December 7 to 18 talks and pledged to cut the amount of carbon dioxide produced for each yuan of national income 40% to 45% by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.

The offer was hailed as a vital political commitment towards rekindling stalled negotiations to fix a new framework for tackling global warming, even though analysts cautioned it was technically quite modest for China.

”It is very similar to the previous 15 years of progress,” said Jim Watson, who studies emissions trajectories at the Tyndall Centre for climate-change research in Britain.

”Add to that further economic restructuring over time, and this goal sounds eminently doable. But certainly it’s very helpful for Copenhagen to have this number on the table.”

The talks have run out of time to settle a legally binding deal after rancorous arguments between rich and poor nations about who should cut emissions, by how much and who should pay.

But hopes are growing that a substantive political pact can be agreed at the December meeting instead.

China’s target comes after big emitters Brazil and Indonesia also announced tough 2020 reduction targets. Wednesday’s 2020 target from the United States and Obama’s attendance are also expected to help the Copenhagen talks, analysts say.

”This is a huge morale booster,” said John Hay, spokesperson for the UN Climate-Change Secretariat, referring to both the Chinese target and the planned visit by Obama.

But in a reminder of the serious disputes that still shadow the summit, China’s top climate envoy took aim at developed nations he said were slacking in their efforts to cut emissions and said new Chinese target was only ”domestically binding”.

”So far we have not seen concrete actions and substantive commitments by the developed countries,” Xie Zhenhua, deputy head of powerful planning body the National Development and Reform Committee, told a hastily arranged news conference in Beijing.

Tough goal?
China’s Cabinet said that its goal, which will still allow greenhouse gas emissions to grow as the economy expands, was a demanding one for the developing country. It will unveil new policies including taxes and financial steps to reach it.

The target does not include carbon sinks, Xie said, and will be calculated based on energy consumption and ”production processes” — probably industrial output.

Extra reductions could therefore come from expansion of forests, which absorb carbon dioxide, and other emission ”sinks”.

Vice-Foreign Minister He Yafei said the plan ”shows China’s highly responsible attitude towards the future of mankind”.

But the goal also matched what many analysts said was China’s current trend-line in carbon intensity, and that may leave at least some negotiators pressing for more in Copenhagen.

A five-year drive to boost energy efficiency and renewables by 2010 will take Beijing around half-way to meeting the carbon intensity goal by the end of this decade.

But the country’s still-rapid industrialisation, and its efforts in recent years, meant harder work for smaller gains in future, said Dai Yande, deputy head of the Energy Research Institute under the National Development and Reform Commission.

”It’s an arduous task for China, as everybody knows energy intensity tends to rise during industrialisation and thus it’s difficult to cut down emissions,” Dai said.

Negotiations ahead
China also said the intensity goal was a ”voluntary” one that would only be binding domestically, leaving room for negotiation about what international commitments Beijing will sign up for.

”I think the question that will immediately follow this is the favourite three initials that the United States keeps talking about — M, R, and V — how China is going to measure, report and verify these cuts,” said Chris Raczkowski, China managing director for Ecofys, a renewable energy consulting company.

As a developing country, China is not obliged by current treaties to accept binding caps on its emissions, and it and other poor countries have said that principle should not change in any new deal that emerges from Copenhagen.

China’s apparent unhappiness about developed nations’ commitments is likely to bolster its resistance to any effort to tie international oversight to its carbon target.

The United States will pledge in Copenhagen to cut its greenhouse gas emissions roughly 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, a drop of about 3% below the 1990 benchmark year used in UN treaties — far below the 25% to 40% cut recommended by the UN climate panel.

In a fast-moving week of climate developments, Australia’s troubled carbon trade scheme was thrown into confusion on Thursday after several opposition lawmakers resigned their party positions and promised to ignore a deal to support the government’s planned laws.

A day earlier, neighbouring New Zealand passed their revised carbon trading laws, the second emissions trading scheme to win approval after Europe’s began in 2005. – Reuters

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