China’s Pledge on Carbon Emissions: Is It Enough?

Time Magazine analyzes China’s recent pledge to reduce carbon emissions:

But it is important to understand what exactly Beijing is promising — and what it’s not. China has not pledged to make an absolute cut in its emissions levels, but rather, a 40% to 45% cut in its “carbon intensity” by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. Carbon intensity is basically another term for energy efficiency; it is a measure of how much carbon is required to produce a given amount of economic output. Even if China succeeds in improving carbon intensity, Chinese greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow for some time, as the Chinese economy itself will be growing. It’s not clear from the pledge how large China’s emissions will be by 2020, but if the country’s economy continues to grow at its typical 8% to 12% annual rate, its carbon emissions could nearly double between now and then. Those levels would still be lower than without China’s pledge, but it still means Beijing will be the world’s top carbon polluter for years ahead. (See how global warming is threatening penguins.)

As a developing country struggling to bring hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty, China is not expected to make the kind of absolute cuts in emissions that the U.S. and European nations have promised. (The U.S. will pledge to cut carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020; the E.U. is promising cuts of at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020.) And Beijing’s pledge goes beyond those of most other major developing nations, including India — although, on a positive note, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told the Hindustan Times on Nov. 26 that “China has given us a wake-up call.” Still, climate negotiators hoped that China would choose a more ambitious target. Since the country has already been instituting domestic programs to improve energy efficiency, the current pledge is unlikely to change its behavior much in the short term — unlike in the U.S., which has never had a national climate policy. It’s worth noting also that Premier Wen, not Chinese President Hu Jintao, will be the one actually attending Copenhagen.

Read more about China and the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, via CDT.