WASHINGTON — China announced Thursday that it will cut its economy's carbon intensity by up to 45 percent by 2020, the state news agency Xinhua said, and that Premier Wen Jiabao will participate in international climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month.
The move by the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter to set a near-term target of a 40 to 45 percent reduction, coming a day after President Barack Obama set U.S. climate goals for the talks, suggests a possible breakthrough in Demark next month in the long-stalled climate negotiations. But the State Council's announcement that China will cut its carbon output relative to economic growth, using 2005 as a baseline, fell short of the 50 or 55 percent cut many leaders had hoped Beijing would make.
Michael Levi, the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, called the announcement "disappointing" because the Energy Information Administration estimates that existing Chinese policies will already cut the nation's carbon intensity by 45 to 46 percent. Carbon intensity is a measure that captures the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of gross domestic product.
"It does not move them beyond business as usual," Levi said. "The United States has put an ambitious path for emissions cuts through 2050 on the table. China needs to raise its level of ambition if it is going to match that. One can only hope that, now that China has made a proposal, negotiators are able to work out something better."
The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, welcomed "the leadership China is bringing to this negotiation," while noting that it will be "disappointing to some" that the cuts did not go further. Others hailed China's commitment as a step that the country had not been willing to take before.
China is not obligated to cut its greenhouse gas emissions under the current framework for the United Nations-sponsored negotiations. But it is expected to account for 50 percent of the growth in global emissions over the next 20 years, making its output nearly 60 percent higher than U.S. output by 2020. Any future climate treaty will be ineffective unless China agrees to make deep cuts.
Given China's projected growth rates, its emissions are projected to rise even under the plan outlined by Xinhua on Thursday. Still, any effort China makes to curb its carbon footprint has an enormous impact.
According to the Washington-based Center for Clean Air Policy, China's current plan to cut its energy intensity by 20 percent translates into a 1.6 billion-ton carbon cut.
Yvo de Boer, who is running the talks as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, welcomed both policy proposals from the United States and China. The White House said the United States would cut its emissions "in the range of 17 percent" by 2020, relative to 2005 levels.
"The U.S. commitment to specific, mid-term emission cut targets and China's commitment to specific action on energy efficiency can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement," de Boer said.