China Proposes Emissions Target Ahead of COP15

China commits to mitigation targets at COP15On the heels of president Obama’s announcement earlier this week that he will attend the COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen and propose firm (if inadequate) emissions targets, Chinese officials have stated they will also propose mitigation targets in Copenhagen. The move from the two largest greenhouse gas emitters has some breathing a sigh of relief in the final days before the start of the conference, though it is also clearly noted that the proposals put forth by both nations fall far short of what science and most of the international community say is necessary.

On Thursday, a spokesman from the Chinese foreign ministry stated that prime minister Wen Jiabao will go to Copenhagen and bring with him a proposal for China to cut its “carbon intensity,” or its emissions relative to economic growth, by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, relative to 2005 levels.

So what does that really mean?

The US is pledging “in the neighborhood” of a 17 percent reductions in emissions by 2020, and the Chinese are committing up to a 45 percent reduction in carbon intensity by 2020, with both both referencing their commitments to 2005. Meanwhile, most other nations use 1990 as the reference year for their mitigation targets. Sound confusing? It is.

What it may mean for the moment, however, is that the two largest emitters, who have heretofore refused to put any numbers on the table, have now finally done so. As the UNFCCC’s John Hay puts it, the US and China moving on mitigation targets is “a huge morale booster.” UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer said in a statement that the developments this week  “can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement” at COP15.

But despite the boost in morale, many see the commitments from both nations as not ambitious enough.

The US target reflects roughly a 4 percent reduction relative to 1990, and China’s pledge to cut carbon intensity means an actual increase in emissions. With the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy, emissions will continue to rise for at least the next decade. It’s a bit of a moving target depending on the actual growth of the Chinese economy, but a 40 to 45 percent cut in carbon intensity amounts to between zero and 12 percent reductions in actual emission over a business-as-usual scenario, translating into a 40% increase in emissions from their current levels.

There is still a need for really ambitious targets and we don’t see this yet,” said Maryke van Staden, following the negotiations for ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, an association representing 1,100 cities around the world.

Representatives from small island states gave even harsher words to the proposals.

For many small island states, President Obama’s offer appears grossly irresponsible and kills all hope for Copenhagen,”  said Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare in a writen statement. “The world’s poor and most vulnerable deserve true leadership from the US.”

Despite the continued skepticism that the large emitters will agree to sufficiently ambitious mitigation targets, the moves this week by the US and China are generally seen by most as a good thing. At least the behemoths are moving.

The skies are clearing,”  said Sweden’s chief climate negotiator,  speaking on behalf of the European Union. “We see more clearly now what the negotiations in Copenhagen are going to be about. On the US,” he added,  “we note that of course the figure for 2020 is insufficient. We hope that the insufficient numbers for 2020 could be complemented by other action such as measures in forestry.”

Danish minister Connie Hedegaard, who is charing the COP15 conference spoke of renewed momentum for real progress at COP15:

It is clear to the world: the Copenhagen deadline works,” she said. “All across the globe, things are moving.”

Sources and further reading:

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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