China’s Pledges Hard To Check

As the global climate conference opens in Copenhagen, analysts fear China’s carbon target will be hard to verify.
By Michael Lelyveld
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china-climate-305.jpg Buildings stand out in the haze in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province, Dec. 3, 2009.

BOSTON--Western nations may have no way of verifying China’s pledge to curb carbon emissions, posing major problems for a climate change treaty, experts say.

As officials from 192 countries gather this week in Copenhagen to forge an accord, they will be relying on China’s recent commitment to cut its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent in 2020, compared with 2005.

The intensity target means China would reduce the amount of greenhouse gas it emits per unit of GDP. The formula is designed to slow the increase in emissions without limiting economic growth.

But analysts are concerned that the formula depends on China’s official data for the economy and energy use, which have both been open to challenge.

“Combining one very uncertain number with another that’s unreliable is fairly useless,” said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

The issue is critical because negotiators are seeking “measurable, reportable, and verifiable” commitments for the treaty under a U.N. framework. Experts see problems with meeting that standard on several counts.

Troubling statistics

China’s official GDP figures have long been suspect.

Most recently in June, the National People’s Congress (NPC) issued a new law against falsifying data after an outcry over rosy reports of wage growth in the midst of recession.

In a commentary headlined “Statistics and Lies,” the official English-language China Daily cited “rampant cheating in statistics by some local governments.”

Energy data has focused on production rather than consumption, making China’s reports on energy efficiency hard to substantiate.

Beijing’s climate change ambassador, Yu Qingtai, also insisted Nov. 26 that China will allow foreign checks of carbon emissions only for activities that receive international financing.

“Actions would be measurable, reportable, and verifiable if (international) support is measurable, reportable, and verifiable,” Reuters quoted Yu as saying.

Only a “very small proportion” of China’s emissions measures would be checked, he said.

Willingness is key

Without verification, the Copenhagen process may only establish a trend toward curbing emissions rather than quantifiable progress, Levi said in an interview.

“It all comes down to how much the Chinese are willing to do themselves and how much they’re willing to submit to verification,” he said.

The treaty may face even tougher questions when it comes to establishing China’s past emissions as a way to measure its progress toward the 2020 target.

“We need to know what it was in 2005 so we can establish a reliable baseline. That’s a difficult starting point in the first place,” Levi said.

In a telephone press conference, officials at the Pew Center on Global Change agreed that the issue remains unsettled.

“There’s a lot of sensitivity around the question of verification,” said Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies.

“Countries don’t want to agree to something that would be too intrusive, that they feel would be compromising their sovereignty.”

Responding to an RFA question, Diringer said there could be ways to set guidelines and submit national reports to an independent committee that would assess accuracy.

But Pew’s president, Eileen Claussen, said the approach is far from achieving international consensus.

 “This is what we think would make the most sense. It isn’t clear who is actually pushing such an approach, if anyone, or what its chances of success actually are,” Claussen said.

Compromise needed

Despite doubts about verifying China’s progress, most analysts think compromise is needed because the country is the world’s biggest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

But the entire approach of negotiating a treaty that relies on the targets has come under attack.

“I would almost say that signing a Copenhagen agreement now would be bad,” said Derek Scissors, research fellow for Asia economic policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, arguing that it may only encourage data fraud.

“It would skew the political incentives before we get a chance to pound it in at the provincial level that—no, no, no—we really want an accurate assessment,” Scissors said.

The risk is that the carbon intensity target will be seen as just another central planning goal that must be fulfilled by any means.

“If you give them a target, they’re going to meet the target, which means they’re just going to skew the reporting and we’re not going to know what’s going on,” Scissors said.

The alternative would be to work on reforming the statistical system first before accepting the data for the climate treaty, he said.


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