No Commitment on China Emissions

China's pledge to curb global warming emissions has raised verification concerns, experts say.
By Michael Lelyveld
2009-09-23
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President Hu Jintao's pledge to combat global warming has drawn a cool response from environmental groups and China experts who worry that the country has yet to set firm goals.

Speaking to the U.N. Summit on Climate Change in New York on Sept. 22, President Hu offered a new measure of China's commitment to curb greenhouse gases, saying the country would cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per unit of GDP "by a notable margin" by 2020. But Hu did not say what the margin would be.

Most analysts interviewed by Radio Free Asia voiced disappointment in the absence of a specific target.

"They did a very good job promoting his speech in advance, but the downside is that this may look like something of a letdown to folks who were waiting for more," said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"There weren't numbers on the critical issue of overall reductions, and there wasn't even a hint at what the number might be," Levi said.

Last chance for progress?

The summit at the U.N. General Assembly was seen as one of the last chances for major progress before a Copenhagen climate treaty conference in December to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Opening the summit, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said failure to conclude a new pact would be "morally inexcusable, economically shortsighted and politically unwise."

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warned that temperatures could rise by up to 6.4 degrees Centigrade (10 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century if nothing is done.

"We understand the gravity of the situation," said U.S. President Barack Obama, addressing the summit. "We are determined to act. And we will meet our responsibility to new generations," he said.

President Obama made no new commitments, but a climate bill pending in Congress calls for cutting CO2 emissions by 83 percent in 2050 compared with 2005.

China's lack of similar hard targets or caps has been seen as a stumbling block for a global deal.

China is estimated to be the world's biggest source of CO2, accounting for some 20 percent of emissions. But Beijing has resisted limits on economic growth, arguing that per capita emissions in developed nations remain far higher.

China's pledge meaningful?

Some saw Hu's pledge as a positive sign that would lead to further steps.

"I think it's definitely a good signal for the negotiations for the Copenhagen protocol," Martin Kaiser, Greenpeace International climate policy coordinator, told RFA.

Kaiser believes that Hu held back on specific commitments because countries like the United States and Canada have not set more ambitious medium-term goals. The U.S. climate legislation includes a 17-percent reduction in CO2 by 2020, while China has pressed developed nations for a 40-percent cut.

Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in
Arlington, Virginia, called Hu's statement "encouraging" but vague.

"We don't know what number the Chinese have in mind and we don't know whether they would be prepared to commit to that type of target internationally," said Diringer. "Without knowing the answer to those questions, it's hard to assess just how meaningful [the] statement is."

China already has specific targets for reducing the amount of energy used per unit of GDP. In 2006, the government set a five-year goal of increasing energy efficiency 20 percent by 2010. As of 2008, China said it had raised efficiency by 10 percent, but total energy use continues to rise because GDP has grown by 9 percent or more per year, according to official reports.

Derek Scissors, research fellow for Asia economic policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said that using the same kind of measure for China's CO2 emissions may be misleading because official figures have repeatedly exaggerated the country's GDP.

If China continues to overstate its economic numbers, it will also exaggerate its emissions reductions per unit of
GDP, said Scissors.

"It's a gigantic problem," he said. "It's reasonable in principle to tie emissions to GDP. We want everybody to
become more efficient and that's what the Chinese are saying. But it doubles up the verification problem."

Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations believes China "would be open to international verification if the
United States and others were open to similar verification themselves."

Scissors said that international verification of China's reporting may not be a "deal-killer," but he believes that
China will seek financial commitments from developed nations in return.

"It's another thing they're going to want compensation for," he said.

In addition to pledging CO2 curbs, Hu said China would try to increase non-fossil fuels to a 15-percent share of energy use by 2020. It will also try to boost forest coverage by 40 million hectares (99 million acres) and promote a green economy, he said.

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