Just one day after the White House announced that President Barack Obama would attend the U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen and pledge to cut carbon emissions, the Chinese government issued a similar decision: that Premier Wen Jiabao would arrive at the upcoming U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen with a target on carbon emissions reductions in hand. After months of wary negotiation, it seemed that the two biggest carbon emitters in the world had finally decided to get serious about climate change, and that their cooperation might be enough to get the troubled international conference back on track. "The world's two largest emitters have stepped up to the plate at the highest political level," said Jonathan Lash, the president of the World Resources Institute. "This shows that international engagement on climate change can produce real results."
But it is important to understand what exactly Beijing is promising and what it's not. China has not pledged to make an absolute cut in its emissions levels, but rather, a 40% to 45% cut in its "carbon intensity" by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. Carbon intensity is basically another term for energy efficiency; it is a measure of how much carbon is required to produce a given amount of economic output. Even if China succeeds in improving carbon intensity, Chinese greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow for some time, as the Chinese economy itself will be growing. It's not clear from the pledge how large China's emissions will be by 2020, but if the country's economy continues to grow at its typical 8% to 12% annual rate, its carbon emissions could nearly double between now and then. Those levels would still be lower than without China's pledge, but it still means Beijing will be the world's top carbon polluter for years ahead.
As a developing country struggling to bring hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty, China is not expected to make the kind of absolute cuts in emissions that the U.S. and European nations have promised. (The U.S. will pledge to cut carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020; the E.U. is promising cuts of at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020.) And Beijing's pledge goes beyond those of most other major developing nations, including India although, on a positive note, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told the Hindustan Times on Nov. 26 that "China has given us a wake-up call." Still, climate negotiators hoped that China would choose a more ambitious target. Since the country has already been instituting domestic programs to improve energy efficiency, the current pledge is unlikely to change its behavior much in the short term unlike in the U.S., which has never had a national climate policy. It's worth noting also that Premier Wen, not Chinese President Hu Jintao, will be the one actually attending Copenhagen.
The real question is how China's pledge will fit into the international negotiations. Beijing has always made it clear that its first concern regarding climate change is national prosperity. Indeed, Wen told diplomats in Beijing on Friday that the carbon pledge was "based on our national conditions and long-term interests." In the past, that kind of statement has signaled that China would be reluctant to allow any kind of international oversight on its domestic pledges no means of confirming that the country is really doing what it says it is.
The U.S., meanwhile, has been equally as insistent that any domestic actions under a climate agreement, including those by developing nations, must be "measurable, reportable and verifiable." But right now it looks as though China will resist international auditing. "Although this is a domestic voluntary action, it is binding," said Xie Zhenua, the Chinese climate policy envoy. "As we've made this commitment, well, Chinese people stick to their word." That stance may change if China receives international financial support for its action although allowing for such financing would be controversial in the U.S. Senate, to say the least.
Adding to climate negotiators' skepticism is the fact that Chinese officials have a reputation for fudging official statistics. If Beijing refuses to integrate its actions into an international system, negotiations at Copenhagen and beyond could stall again. For now, however, after months of setbacks, advocates of action on climate change are feeling somewhat more sanguine. "The latest statements by Barack Obama and China's leaders are extremely encouraging in making Copenhagen a success," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Nov. 26. Even if they could do much more, the two biggest carbon emitters in the world are playing the game again.