China echoed the Bush administration's stance on global warming Monday, refusing to set firm caps on its greenhouse-gas emissions and saying that economic growth remained its "first and overriding priority."
Releasing the country's first plan to deal with climate change, the government rejected international demands that it should fix ceilings on Chinese emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.
Instead, the plan acknowledges the threat global warming poses to China's economic growth and outlines energy conservation measures, new technologies, and alternative energy sources to cut the country's net CO2 output.
China's reluctance to set firm limits on emissions will further complicate the efforts that European nations have launched to set new and binding greenhouse-gas limits when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2013.
"The plan sets a basic framework on which China can build but falls short of setting acceptable targets" said one European diplomat. "Hopefully we can get them to that point."
China – the second largest source of greenhouse gases after the United States – would "shoulder its share of responsibility for global climate change," said Ma Kai, China's minister of economic planning. But "China does not commit to any quantified emissions-reduction commitments," he added.
Released two days before President Hu Jintao attends a meeting of the G-8 in Germany that is expected to focus on climate change, the Chinese plan sets out a series of measures designed to check the country's greenhouse-gas emissions.
Though clearly timed to give Mr. Hu ammunition with which to fend off critics, the report's real significance, say experts here, is the fact it was released under the auspices of China's top governing body, the State Council, or cabinet.
"The State Council is paying attention, and that is much, much more important than the substance itself," said Pan Jiahua, a member of the panel that drafted the plan. "This is very much a sign that climate change is really going to be on the agenda."
"The biggest problem," cautions Yang Ailun, an energy analyst with the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, "is going to be implementation. It is difficult to translate national ambitions to local implementation when local officials are obsessed with economic development at any price."
'Unshirkable primary responsibility'
Mr. Ma, head of China's National Development and Reform Commission, insisted that developed nations bear "the unshirkable primary responsibility for climate change," since they have historically pumped almost all the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere. "They must undertake the principle efforts to combat" global warming, he argued.
Developing countries such as China, he said, need "space for development. It is neither fair nor acceptable to us to impose too early, too abruptly, and too bluntly measures that one would ask of developed countries."
Quantifiable limits on CO2 emissions, he added, "would hamper their efforts to achieve industrialization. It is quite inevitable that during this stage, China's energy consumption and CO2 emissions will be quite high."
At the same time, he pointed out, China's greenhouse-gas emissions per head of population is about one-fifth of the US rate, and one third of the average in developed countries.
Beyond these disclaimers, however, the plan shows that "Beijing is getting to grips with what climate change means for China and what China means for climate change," says the diplomat. Even though, as a developing country, China is not obliged by the Kyoto Protocol to reduce its CO2 output, "it is putting itself in a positive frame" he adds.
China's targets to increase efficiency
The plan's key goal is to reduce the amount of energy needed to produce one unit of GDP by 20 percent by 2010. For example, for every $1 of economic output, China hopes to use, one day, 20 percent less energy. But at current rates, economic growth will outstrip the targeted 4-percent per year reduction, meaning there will be no overall reduction in emissions. [Editor's Note: The original version misstated the amount of economic output that would be affected.]
"By 2025, China might be able to stabilize, and even reduce emissions in absolute terms," predicts Professor Pan. "But for the time being that is not possible."
For the first time, observers here say, the plan sets out the cost to China of continued global warming, ranging from extreme weather events to melting glaciers that it warns will "have immense impact on socioeconomic development."
The 62-page report also points out that as China urbanizes and industrializes even faster, its reliance on coal for nearly 70 percent of its energy will make it even harder to combat climate change.
One target the plan reiterates is to increase the use of renewable energy sources – such as hydropower, biofuel and wind-power – from 7 percent today to 10 percent by 2010 and to 16 percent by 2020. The government is also pledging to increase China's forest cover to 20 percent, to boost the natural absorption of some of the CO2 the country's factories emit.
At the same time, the plan pins considerable hope on technological advances to burn coal more cleanly, capture and store CO2 emitted from refineries, cement factories and steel mills, and to conserve energy.
Pleading with developed countries to share such technology, which the UN Convention on Climate Change promises, Ma complained that "We have heard a lot of thunder, but we have not seen the rainfall."
He welcomed a US offer to share bio-fuel technology, and called President Bush's proposal last week that 15 major energy producers and consumers should set global greenhouse gas limits on "a positive shift of attitude."
Ma also said he shared Mr. Bush's insistence that "our efforts to fight climate change must not come at the expense of economic growth."
But he warned that the new White House initiative should be seen as "a useful complement" to the UN Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, "not a substitute."