Climate Pledges Fall Short

China’s carbon target gets mixed reviews.
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A factory emits smoke in Jilin city, in northeast China's Jilin province, March 1, 2009.
A factory emits smoke in Jilin city, in northeast China's Jilin province, March 1, 2009.
By Michael Lelyveld

BOSTON—International climate commitments have fallen short of U.N. targets to control global warming, but experts hope major nations will improve upon pledges they have already made.

The United States has pledged to cut emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, while China has committed to lower its “carbon intensity” by 40 to 45 percent over the same period.

The intensity index has stirred debate because China and other developing countries have refused to reduce total emissions, citing their needs for economic growth.

Instead, they would cut carbon content, or intensity, per unit of economic output.

Last year, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that China’s total CO2 emissions will rise some 57 percent by 2020, compared with 2007, while U.S. emissions would fall by 3.5 percent.

China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest CO2 emitter in 2007, the IEA said.

The department’s Energy Information Administration has estimated that emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) in China are already 90 percent higher than in the United States, while in 2020 they will still be 63 percent higher.

‘Development gap’

So far, there has been little focus on China’s higher carbon intensity because of the 40-45 percent cut that it has publicized.

But Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said the difference is also related to the development gap between China and countries like the United States.

“It’s generally the case that carbon intensity is higher in the developing countries than in the developed countries, so it’s no surprise that China’s intensity will still be higher in 2020,” Diringer said.

But the continuing gap in both total emissions and intensity rates may put pressure on China to set more ambitious emissions targets.

China has faced criticism that its 40-45 percent cut in carbon intensity reflects only the energy efficiency goals that it had already set.

Although China has launched the world’s largest wind and solar power industries, it is burning more than 3 billion tons of coal annually, three times as much as the United States.

“China is in the same boat as a lot of countries in the world. It’s doing more than it was a few years ago, and it’s still not doing enough,” said Michael Levi, director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

New policies?

Some experts have voiced disappointment that China failed to go beyond a carbon target that represents “business as usual,” but Diringer argued that the country has already taken major steps toward efficiency and renewable energy.

“What some people are referring to as ‘business as usual’ is actually a reflection of new policies that China is undertaking,” Diringer said.

Analysts hope that China’s intensity target will turn out to be a first step that will be followed by tougher measures.

“It’s doing a lot, and it may well do more than these numbers suggest. It may be that the government has decided to take a fairly conservative approach,” Diringer said.

“I think they would rather exceed their targets than fall short of their targets.”

Australia and the European Union have both made conditional offers to make more CO2 reductions if others take similar steps, Diringer said.

The offers raise the possibility of greater progress if developed and developing countries agree on higher targets.

But with passage of the Copenhagen deadline for a treaty, progress toward a binding agreement is expected to be slow.

“I don’t think it will be feasible in the coming year, and it might take a number of years,” Diringer said.

Levi said it is unclear whether a binding treaty should even be a primary goal.

“My focus isn’t on whether we get a binding treaty. It’s on whether countries do what they need to do,” he said.

Edited by Richard Finney.





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