Ahead of Copenhagen, China sets targets to slow emissions growth

China announced its most specific goals yet for reducing emissions growth, in an opening bid of sorts for Copenhagen climate change talks. It drew mixed reviews.

A man walks past cooling towers of a power plant in Yingtan, Jiangxi province on Thursday. China said that its promise to cut carbon intensity up to 45 percent by 2020 is a "binding goal", and that it will use strengthened policies including taxation and financial measures to reach the target.

BEIJINGChina pledged on Thursday to slow the rate at which its carbon emissions are growing, but acknowledged that they would continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

This represents a “positive and responsible effort,” said Xie Zhenhua, deputy head of China’s top economic policymaking body, the National Development and Reform Council. “It is an ambitious but viable target.”

Ten days before a climate change summit opens in Copenhagen, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases announced it would emit between 40 and 45 percent less carbon per unit of economic output by 2020 than it did in 2005.

The announcement marks the first time China has set a numerical goal for its carbon emissions. It is seen as an opening bid ahead of the Copenhagen summit, due to set a new roadmap for global action against climate change, but it drew mixed reactions.

“This is a very serious and impressive commitment,” says Wu Shanghua, China director for the Climate Group, an international nongovernmental organization promoting low-carbon development. “It is a very good indicator to the international community that China is taking a leading role.”

Other environmental activists were less enthusiastic. “This is a good start,” says Yang Ailun, a climate change analyst with Greenpeace, “but China could do more.”

China’s negotiating partners in the industrialized world were expected to be disappointed by the target. United States climate negotiator Todd Stern is understood to have urged Beijing privately to pledge cuts in its carbon intensity of at least 50 percent by 2020.

“If China’s economy continues to grow at the rate it has over the past 10 to 15 years, the target that has been announced is unlikely to deliver sufficient emissions reductions to avoid irreversible and dangerous climate change,” says one European diplomat.

The British government welcomed what it called “an important opening contribution” to the Copenhagen negotiations, but in a statement reminded the Chinese government that they have already committed themselves to “reducing their emissions by a meaningful deviation from ‘business-as-usual’ levels.

The flexible goal, of a reduction in carbon intensity of between 40 and 45 percent over 15 years, is in fact less ambitious in numerical terms than China’s past performance.

Between 1990 and 2005, according to official figures, Beijing cut carbon emissions relative to economic activity by 47 percent.

Mr. Xie, however, insisted that the new goal would actually be harder to reach because many of the worst greenhouse gas culprits, such as small coal-fired power stations, old fashioned cement plants, and inefficient steel mills, have already been closed down.

“The further you go the harder it gets to increase energy efficiency,” Xie said. “Our target seems lower than before but it will be more difficult to meet and the costs will be higher.”

“There is not so much low-hanging fruit any more,” adds Ms. Wu. “There is less room than there used to be to improve.”

Under the Kyoto Protocol, due to be renewed at the Copenhagen meeting, only industrialized countries are obliged to make legally binding commitments to reduce their carbon emissions. Developing nations such as China are asked only to take voluntary steps to mitigate climate change while they pursue industrialization.

Xie said China would have to make “tremendous and remarkable efforts” to reach the target the government had set, but that if rich countries provided the financial and technological assistance they have pledged “maybe we will be able to meet the target at an earlier date.”


The US unveiled its targets for emissions cuts on Wednesday. Read more about its position here.

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