Now, China is the good guy on climate change

If the US, with its climate change legislation facing an uphill battle in Congress, is increasingly looking like the bad guy of climate change negotiations, China is beginning to look like the good guy.

Yesterday the FT reported that the International Energy Agency’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, was full of praise for China’s efforts to reduce its emissions.

Then Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said he expected China would become the “world leader” in climate change efforts, when president Hu Jintao addresses  the UN General Assembly today.

De Boer was aware of the irony. From the FT:

Mr Hu would announce measures that would “take Chinese emissions very significantly away from where they would have been and are”, Yvo de Boer said. It would be “quite ironic”, he added, to hear that “in a country [the US] that is firmly convinced that China is doing nothing to address climate change”.

So what is everyone so excited about? China after all will use those ‘carbon intensity’ commitments to try and avoid committing to binding emissions targets. But China’s right to increase its overall greenhouse gas emissions in the pursuit of growing its economy is virtually uncontested these days. What the developed world wants from China is firm commitments that it will curb, not cut, its emissions. That is, it will lower its emissions growth from they would be under a ‘business as usual’ scenario, by adopting firm commitments to pursue a low-carbon path to economic growth.

China already has energy efficiency goals – to reduce energy use per unit of GDP by 20 per cent between 2006 and 2010, and plans for bigger targets in the following five-year plan.

A carbon intensity goal would take this a step further – at least, probably. Charles McElwee of the China Environmental Law blog made some excellent points about talk of carbon intensity goals last month:

A carbon intensity target would be nice, but as many have pointed out China’s energy intensity goal also helps to reduce carbon intensity, so a carbon intensity goal will need to be structured to be incremental to, not simply coextensive with, the energy use per unit of production goal.  Furthermore, it must be set at an aggressive level.  As the McKinsey study, “China’s Green Revolution,” has pointed out, if China continues to grow at an annual GDP growth rate of 7.8%,

  • AND continues to meet its aggressive energy intensity reduction goals,
  • AND installs all the renewable energy called for its current medium- & long-term renewable energy plan,
  • AND achieves a 4.8% annual growth rate in carbon efficiency,

it will more than double its 2005 carbon emissions by 2030. (6.8 Gigatons of CO2e vs. 14.5 Gigatons of CO2e).

The big question, however, will be how China’s efforts are viewed in the US, and whether that will be enough to make a difference to the Waxman-Markey bill’s chances in the Senate.

Related links:

What China is doing about climate change (FT Energy Source, 08/06/09)
China’s green revolution (McKinsey 26/02/09)
US-China climate talks: Where the media coverage matters (FT Energy Source, 16/07/09)

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