New Goals Lift Climate Hopes

New carbon targets for the United States and China could stabilize greenhouse trends, energy agency says.
By Michael Lelyveld
2009-10-19
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BOSTON--In advance of a climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, energy experts say that solutions are still possible to keep global warming under control.

On Oct. 6, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) released new findings on the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that could change the outlook for treaty goals.

The IEA report and accompanying recommendations are part of its larger annual World Energy Outlook, scheduled for release in November

The good news contained in the report is that the global recession has temporarily stopped the rise in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This year, the report says, the economic slump is likely to produce a 3-percent drop in emissions, reversing an expected annual increase of 3 percent.

Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, says that new IEA emission-reduction goals presented in the report are achievable for China, even though it may resist pressure to take a firm treaty pledge.

"I don't expect China to agree to the specific targets that are outlined here, but that doesn't mean that it's not possible for China to do the things that the IEA is suggesting it can do," Levi told Radio Free Asia.

The IEA has called for extra efforts to stabilize the growth of emissions from all countries, raising the question of whether big contributors like the United States and China will go along.

Goals 'achievable'

Much of the progress depends on China, which will account for 28 percent of world C02 emissions in 2020, or a 75-percent greater share than the United States, according to the IEA.

China insists that industrialized nations must do more because of their history of emissions over the past century, while critics of U.S. climate legislation say American sacrifices will be futile unless Beijing agrees to tighter controls.

Under the IEA plan, China would be allowed to increase its emissions by 38 percent in 2020, accepting the country's argument that it cannot afford to reduce energy use and economic growth.

But China's growth in CO2 would have to be less than the 57-percent increase that the IEA forecasts, based on national efficiency measures that Beijing has already outlined.

Levi said the adjusted targets for China are achievable.

"There is no reason why China cannot massively increase its energy efficiency and also boost its share of renewable energy and use of nuclear power," he said.

Room to grow

Levi said that a smaller increase in emissions would still give China plenty of room for economic expansion. Under the IEA plan, China's per capita emissions would grow by 28 percent, while U.S. per capita emissions would fall by 27 percent.

"China can reduce its emissions substantially relative to business as usual while still growing its economy and still, frankly, growing its emissions," Levi said.

"We have to accept that its emissions will continue to grow for the next decade or so before ideally they turn around and start coming down."

So far, China has not taken an official stand on the new IEA targets. Asked for their response, major environmental groups cited prepared statements or declined comment.

"The IEA report confirms what we already know--that investing in a cleaner energy future is cheaper than continuing with the current trends," said Greenpeace International climate policy advisor Kaisa Kosonen in a statement.

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia, said it was still analyzing the report and was not prepared to comment.

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