China under pressure to play key role at Copenhagen climate summit

China, the largest greenhouse-gas emitter, will not take on emissions caps but has announced its first numerical target. The US and EU are likely to push for more at Copenhagen climate summit.

Elizabeth Dalziel/AP
Haze clouds the skyline over the forbidden city in Beijing, China, on Nov. 27.

As the world's worst greenhouse-gas emitter, China will be under especially intense pressure at next week's climate change summit in Copenhagen to play a key role in cutting the world's carbon emissions.

Beijing, though, is well prepared to defend its corner, Chinese and foreign experts say, in the expected battle between rich and poor nations over who should do what to avert potentially catastrophic global warming.

The steps it is already taking to reduce emissions, along with a new target-setting pledge to do more, put China in "a unique and convenient position in the slipstream behind the US," says Jørgen Delman, a professor of China studies at the University of Copenhagen.

A bill before the US Congress would cut American CO2 emissions around 6 percent from 1990 by 2020. That is well short both of the developing country demands for a 40 percent cut, and of other developed countries' goals.

China has refused to set any cap on its CO2 emissions; as a developing country it is spared the obligation to do so under the Kyoto Protocol.

Last week, however, Beijing announced a numerical target for the first time: The government pledged to cut the amount of carbon that China emits per dollar of GDP – known as carbon intensity – by at least 40 percent by 2020.

The United States, the European Union, and other developed nations are likely to push for more than that relative goal. After a summit with Chinese leaders this week, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said the EU wanted to know "how it will differ from their 'business as usual' pathway."

China already made strides

While China's plan for a 40 to 45 percent cut in carbon intensity won a generally positive response worldwide, it does not appear to improve on the country's performance between 1990 and 2005, when it boosted energy efficiency by 47 percent.

China's response is that improving energy efficiency gets harder and more expensive once the most obvious offenders – such as old-fashioned and small steel mills - have been eliminated.

At the same time, points out Xie Zhenhua, deputy head of the policymaking National Development and Reform Commission, "we are at an important stage of accelerated industrialization and urbanization. We face enormous difficulties to control greenhouse gases."

Even if China meets its carbon intensity goals, a recent Chinese report found its CO2 emissions will still rise over the next quarter century by 69 percent before leveling off, not in the least because of the country's long-term dependence on cheap coal.

The speed of China's growth poses another problem, adds He Jiankun, a top climate change adviser to the government. "It is hard to predict whether growth will be 7 percent or 10 percent a year," he says. "Over 10 years, that adds up to 30 percent, a big difference.

"China's development is uncertain, so the future trend of CO2 emissions is uncertain too" he says. "Everybody is talking about a low carbon development path but nobody has ever taken one. The developed countries can't illustrate how it should be done."

Beijing's first steps down that path have included the shuttering of 54 gigawatts of old, small-scale, and inefficient power-generating facilities over the past three years, and raising China's overall coal-powered generating efficiency to a higher level than the US, says Professor He.

'In our own interests for sustainable development'

Chinese windpower capacity has doubled each year for the past three years, he points out, and the government plans to plant 60 billion trees – which serve as a carbon sink – by 2020.

"China can match any other country in the intensity of its policy measures and the results achieved," boasts Yu Qingtai, head of China's delegation to the Copenhagen summit.

It's not that Beijing is adopting these sorts of policies purely out of altruism, Mr. Yu adds. Alongside China's "responsible attitude," he says, "more importantly, this is in our own interests for sustainable development."

"There is no doubt that China will be one of the biggest victims of climate change," adds Yang Ailun, a global warming specialist with Greenpeace China. Popular protests against pollution are already a major concern for the government, she points out, which "leaves China with no choice but to tackle climate change.

"You do it, or you risk your social stability" she says.

China will pursue its carbon intensity goals for its own reasons, regardless of what other countries commit in Copenhagen, Mr. Xie told reporters. But he did hint that Chinese negotiators might be tempted to raise their opening bid in the negotiations.

Under Kyoto, developed countries are meant to provide developing ones with financial and technical support to help them adapt to the effects of climate change and to mitigate their own contributions to it.

No serious money is yet on the table, complains Xie, but "if we receive financial and technical support, maybe we will be able to meet our target in a better way and at a faster pace."

In the runup to Copenhagen, says Professor Delmar, "China has played the climate negotiations both tough and smart.

"If the Chinese leadership plays its cards diligently" over the next two weeks, he adds, "it will be able to come out of the climate negotiations as a winner, almost no matter what the end result will be.

"If the negotiations fail ... the developed countries will bear most of the blame," he forecasts. "And if they are a success, China will be a major part of that."


China's green leap forward: Read more here.

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