At Summit, China Says It Will Peak Emissions ‘As Early As Possible’ But Bold Pledges Come Later

CREDIT: AP/ Richard Drew

Vice Premier Zhang Gaoni, of China, addresses the United Nations Climate Summit, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014.

As Tuesday’s United Nations summit wrapped up, there were an array of pledges to reduce carbon emissions and help fund green programs, but what did the world’s largest GHG emitter — China — have to say? Already expectations had been lowered due to the fact that President Xi Jinping sent Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli as his special envoy rather than going himself.

Speaking at the summit before Zhang, President Obama specifically said that the United States and China — the world’s two largest economies and largest carbon polluters — bear a “special responsibility to lead,” saying “that’s what big nations have to do.”

“Nobody gets a pass,” Obama said. “We will do our part, and we’ll help developing nations do theirs.”

When it was his turn to speak, Zhang told the United Nations gathering that China will “try” to achieve a peak in its carbon emissions “as early as possible.” He did not provide further information on the timeline for that peak. He also pledged to provide $6 million for efforts by the U.N. to promote South-South cooperation on climate change among developing countries.

“As a responsible major developing country, China will make an even greater effort to address climate change and take on international responsibilities that are commensurate with our national conditions,” said Zhang.

After Zhang’s announcement, China’s top climate official, Xie Zhenhua, said China would see a 45 percent drop in carbon emissions intensity — carbon emissions per unit of GDP — by 2020 based on 2005 levels. The country had already made a prior pledge to bring intensity down by 40 to 45 percent. Both the U.S. and China delayed releasing post-2020 GHG emissions targets until the deadline of March 2015 in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit at the end of 2015, where a new global treaty is hoped for.

Obama and Zhang met briefly at the summit. While both countries relied more on rhetoric and past announcements than bold, new initiatives on Tuesday there is hope for cooperation going forward. However there is still lively debate about who is responsible for what amount of carbon reduction in any future protocol.

“As world leaders gather in New York City on Tuesday for an United Nations Climate Summit, some Western powers have once again rushed to push China into the limelight, hyping up its status as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter,” stated an op-ed in Xinhua, a Chinese news agency, on Tuesday. The authors say the claim that China should shoulder a bulk of the responsibility of fighting climate change is “untenable.”

“In the particular case of China, the world’s most populous nation is facing the daunting task of modernizing its economy for the benefit of a whopping 1.35 billion population — nearly one fifth of the world’s total,” it states. “During the painstaking process, China remains troubled by a barrage of growing woes such as development imbalance and poverty alleviation.”

China also suffers major air pollution issues, food scarcity, water quality, and environmental degradation relating to fossil fuel production. As a report released just before the summit went to great lengths to point out, addressing climate change and growing an economy can go hand-in-hand in the coming decades.