China softens climate rhetoric, commits to emissions peak (again), shows flexibility on Western reductions

This guest post is by Julian L. Wong and Austin Davis at the Center for American Progress.Multiple news outlets have been reporting that yesterday’s news conference with China’s top climate change ambassador, Yu Qingtai, marked a significant departure from China’s established attitudes toward climate change. He also expressed a degree flexibility regarding China’s previous demands that developed nations pledge to reduce their carbon emissions 40% by 2020 from 1990 levels at Copenhagen this December.

It’s true: Wednesday’s conference provided a more explicit explanation of China’s position on climate change than had been offered previously. Yu reaffirmed China’s commitment to eventually reducing its carbon emissions while giving more specific details as to China’s position on the Copenhagen talks.

Great quotes like “there is no one in the world who is more keen than us to see China reach its emissions peak as early as possible” may have caused a stir among the western media, but this is not really news.

Influential Chinese scholars have been pushing for a peaking pathway for some time now. Hu Angang, a public policy professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a prominent policy adviser for the Chinese government, has advocated for China to aim for a peaking of carbon emissions in 2030, while He Jiankun, deputy head of the State Council’s Expert Panel on Climate Change Policy has projected that China’s emissions are more likely to peak at 2035. Similarly, a report (executive summary in Chinese only) by one of the most influential Chinese government think tanks, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has called for peaking between 2030 and 2040.


And just last month, China officially committed itself to establish a pathway for peaking by signing off on the July 9th Declaration of the Leaders of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which stated that “The peaking of global and national emissions should take place as soon as possible.” While the relevant provision lacks a timetable and is laden with the caveat of the “overriding priorities in developing countries”, the MEF declaration provides precedent for Yu’s comments on emissions peaking.

So, what are the practical implications of China’s new climate-engaged rhetoric? While they’re opening two new coal plants per week, the Chinese are using the low energy demand caused by the recent recession as an opportunity to shut down their less efficient coal plants and replace them with some of the most efficient in the industry. Meanwhile, China has been making sincere investment and policy efforts to support clean energy technologies (see “China Begins Its Transition to a Clean-Energy Economy”).

Yu stopped short of explicitly recanting China’s previous demands for developed countries to cut 40% of their emissions by 2020:

Asked whether China had abandoned a demand for a 40 percent cut in rich nation emissions by 2020, Yu said that a target for developed countries should be agreed in the talks.

“As the developed countries have a historical responsibility for climate change, they should continue to implement large emissions cuts after 2012,” Yu said.

“A concrete figure has to be decided by the negotiations; we will get a result in Copenhagen,” he said, but added Beijing still considered the 40 percent sought by developing countries in previous talks a “fair and rational” target.

So while Yu maintained the developing world’s rhetorical virulence against the historical climate injustices committed by the developed world, it seems clear that China’s push for a real climate deal by the end of the year is to be taken seriously.


What is interesting about these new statements by Yu, which portray an increased willingness to engage in the international climate process, is how they coincide with recent actions of two fellow non-Annex I (or “developing”) countries. Earlier this week, South Korea surprised the world by pledging to set a 2020 carbon emissions target, while Mexico announced that it will offer a substantive plan to cut greenhouse gases for developing countries at Copenhagen. As the first non-Annex I countries endorsing a capping of emissions, South Korea and Mexico show that the developing world is paying attention to climate change even when many in America prefer not to (see “South Korea, a ‘developing’ country, embraces 2020 emissions cap, with important implications for a global deal in Copenhagen”).

The media has missed a broader story — The shift in tenor of these major non-Annex I countries, as reflected in these announcements, should offer pause to the pessimists who think that the impasse between the developed and the developing world in reaching a global deal in Copenhagen is insurmountable.