One day after the United States proposed rules to limit the amount of carbon emitted from existing power plants, China said it will limit its total CO2 emissions for the first time, likely starting in 2016 with the announcement of their next five-year plan. China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and the U.S., the second biggest, account for about 42 percent of global emissions. The back-to-back signalling of serious domestic efforts to reduce emissions could signal a much-needed boost of momentum at the upcoming U.N. climate talks in an effort to establish a post-Kyoto global commitment. However the statements, which come from He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, are without specific detail or commitment and merely offer speculation on China’s approach to regulating GHGs going forward.
According to Reuters, He told a conference in Beijing on Tuesday that an absolute cap on carbon emissions will be introduced later this decade.”The government will use two ways to control CO2 emissions in the next five-year plan, by intensity and an absolute cap,” He said.
The cap will be the first time China, which has been plagued by air pollution from coal-burning power plants as well as the impacts of climate change in the form of heat and drought, has publicly committed to limiting emissions. Right now China is only attempting to limit “carbon intensity” which means as the economy expands carbon emissions can continue to grow. A peak on overall emissions would help separate economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions.
“What’s going on is that the Chinese government has publicly announced that they are in the process of drawing up new plans for the next five-year plan,” said Melanie Hart, director of the China energy and climate policy program at the Center for American Progress. “These plans are macro-level guides for the economy, including energy and climate:”
What Beijing’s climate modelers are trying to do now is to figure out when Chinese emissions will naturally peak under a business as usual scenario. They are tracking past emission patterns in Europe, the United States and other developed nations to figure out at what point in the industrialization process emissions naturally peak and when that is likely to happen for China. It is not yet clear whether Beijing will use that information to set an ambitious target that drives their nation to peak earlier than their business as usual scenario. That is something the international community should keep a close eye on.
Hart said that if Chinese government establishes a national peak year for Chinese emissions, “it could be a game changer.”
“Once they have that on paper they’ll have to stick to it.”
Even though He’s words come on the heels of the U.S. announcement to cut GHGs from power plants, the two are not likely related. China is worried about domestic jobs and economic goals and still views itself as a developing country when it comes to climate goals. While China wants to be a leader among developing countries, it still falls on the U.S. to lead the overall effort — or to at least live up to prior commitments. The U.S. announcement is a big deal in part because it shows that the country will live up to its 2020 targets, making it harder for developing countries like China to hide behind lagging efforts in developed countries.
China has been slowly rolling out local and regional initiatives to reduce dirty fossil fuel production while at the same time encouraging the growth of renewable energy sources. Coal still accounts for about two-thirds of China’s energy production, and establishing a peak emissions year must align strongly with a peak year for coal-burning power production. Even as wealthier residents along the eastern coast demand cleaner air, inland there are millions of Chinese simply looking to improve quality-of-life through access to electricity and basic living standard improvements.
This announcement is both the latest in a series of domestic carbon-reduction efforts from China and one of the boldest as the stakes of the international climate discussions unfold. As the true impacts of climate change move ever more into the present, the necessity of cooperation is just as apparent as the importance of leadership. Hart said that China pays very close attention to climate policies that work or don’t work in other countries as they attempt to craft their own responses.
“The U.S. is putting their money where their mouth is, they are here to play ball,” said Hart. “This creates a greater push for other nations to be ambitious.”