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26th Apr 2019

China pledges 40% cut in CO2 ahead of summit

  • Shanghai: China is the world's largest emitter of CO2 (Photo: stuck_in_customs)

China has finally come to the table with a CO2 emissions reduction target ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit less than two weeks from now. But its proposal would still mean emissions growth in net terms in the coming years.

Until now, the Middle Kingdom, the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, has resisted all pressure to come up with a specific target, preferring to emphasise its plans for energy efficiency and renewable energy instead.

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On Thursday (26 November), Beijing announced that at a Chinese State Council executive meeting the day before, the country's leadership agreed to a cut of between 40 and 45 percent on 2005 levels by 2020.

"China has always attached great importance to climate change, unswervingly taking the road of sustainable development," the government said in a statement.

The offer came a day after the United States tabled its provisional proposal of a reduction. At the UN climate summit in Copenhagen December, US President Barack Obama is to announce a cut "in the range of" 17 percent on 2005 levels by 2020 and by 83 percent by 2050.

The EU, by comparison, has agreed it is to reduce its emissions by 20 percent on 1990 levels by 2020, moving up to a 30 percent cut if an ambitious agreement is reached in Copenhagen.

To use the same baseline as the EU, the US offer amounts to a reduction of four to five percent on 1990 levels.

While on the face of it, China, a rapidly developing but still relatively poor country, appears to trump by a considerable margin the offer of the US, a fully industrialised nation, details in the Chinese target give pause for thought.

Washington has proposed its reduction based on its absolute level of emissions, while Beijing's target is a reduction of 40-45 percent "per unit of GDP."

The reduction therefore depends on by how much the Chinese economy grows. Assuming an eight percent growth rate, China's average economic expansion in recent years, this will mean an increase in absolute emissions and not a reduction.

However, the Chinese proposal would see a cap on the rate of growth, in line with UN demands that industrialised countries reduce their emissions by between 25 and 40 percent on 1990 levels and developing countries reduce emissions by between 15 and 30 percent on 2005 levels.

The EU is being cautious before the Chinese offer has been fully assessed, but it is understood that as a result of bilateral talks, Brussels had been expecting deeper cuts.

EU disappointed

EU leaders called both the Chinese and US offers "disappointing."

"We recognise the steps China is taking to tackle climate change, but the proposed targets will be disappointing to some," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in a joint statement.

"We will continue to urge the US, China and all our other partners in this negotiation to go to the outer limits of what is possible in order to find agreement in Copenhagen."

Climate experts are also busy crunching the numbers to assess the full significance of Beijing's proposed target.

However, according to Niklas Hoehne, of Ecofys, a Dutch sustainable energy consultancy firm, the target is still "ambitious."

"If they'd offered an absolute reduction of 40-45 percent on 2005 levels, that would have been quite a stunner. But that's really unlikely to happen. The offer is however in line with what the science demands, unlike industrialised countries," he said. "It's a very positive step forward."

Demands of science

"But it's difficult to say just yet what this means precisely, as China has not provided a lot of details. It doesn't increase the ambition levels from what we have already heard, but it is in line with its already ambitious energy efficiency and renewables plans."

"The key is that China's announced a target, which they have strongly rejected all along."

Other green campaigners were impressed by the move.

"This is a significant announcement at a very important point in time," said Ailun Yang of Greenpeace China, while still calling on China to do more. "This is another challenge to the industrialised world, particularly the US."

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