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Peaking Duck

Beijing’s Growing Appetite for Climate Action

SOURCE: AP/Gerald Herbert

Chinese Vice Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission Xie Zhenhua shakes hands with Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher look on.

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China’s climate change envoy, Yu Qingtai, made headlines when he declared in a news conference earlier this month that “there is no one in the world who is more keen than us to see China reach its emissions peak as early as possible.”

Now all eyes are focused on the United States and China—the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters—with just four months to go to the U.N. summit on climate change in Copenhagen, where nations will negotiate a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Attendees at the most recent round of U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany may have left the meetings with a pessimistic sense that we’re a long way off from a global agreement. But interesting developments are unfolding in China outside of these U.N. meetings that bring a more hopeful message.

China already committed in a declaration last month with 15 other large emitting countries at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in Italy to peak global and national emissions “as soon as possible.” That provision lacks a precise timetable and is laden with the caveat that of the “overriding priorities of developing countries,” but it is the statement of intent that the Chinese are clearly taking seriously.

Then just last week, a panel of climate policy experts from various Chinese government think tanks published an extensive 900-page report that has gained notable attention in both the Chinese and Western press for advocating the notion that China can feasibly aim to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. The report is advisory in nature and by no means represents official policy, but it is the latest in a series of overtures by prominent Chinese academics to set emissions peaking pathways. Hu Angang, a public policy professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a prominent policy adviser for the Chinese government, has also advocated for China to aim for peaking carbon emissions in 2030. 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. Additionally, a different report released earlier this year by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, another prominent government think tank, called for peaking between 2030 and 2040.

Setting the timing of emissions peaking alone without considering the trajectory of the emissions pathway—especially the height of the peak—may not be helpful in determining whether such measures go as far as the climate science requires. But the broader significance of such discussions at the top-levels of the Chinese government, especially at this critical juncture in the run up to Copenhagen, should not be missed. China’s willingness to be a constructive player in the international climate change negotiation process is there; it just needs to be acknowledged and encouraged.

China’s willingness is not just talk, but is backed up by concrete actions. We have discussed previously many of the actions China is taking, including its current five-year plan that boasts some of the most ambitious energy efficiency and renewable energy targets in the world. And today, the Climate Group has launched a report entitled “China’s Clean Revolution II: Opportunities for a Low Carbon Future” that provides a similarly compelling narrative of how China, despite the current global economic downturn, is making hefty investments to accelerate a tectonic shift from grey to green in sectors such as transportation, industrial energy efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal, and urban design. The transition won’t be easy, nor will it happen overnight, but there should be little doubt about the Chinese leadership’s intent and resolve to reorient its carbon-intensive economy toward a more sustainable path.

China may announce its next five-year plan as early as this year, and many expect that it will contain even stronger commitments and perhaps incorporate some measure of carbon reductions in the form of benchmarks for reducing carbon intensity. China’s State Council, led by Premier Wen Jiabao, last week laid down the objective of incorporating climate change considerations into “the medium and long-term development strategies and plans of government at every level.” Also, Sun Qin, the vice chief of the National Energy Administration said he expects the government to complete a comprehensive plan for new and low-carbon energy development by the end of the year. A low-carbon strategy will be a central thread in China’s ongoing economic development strategy.

China is also hinting at increased flexibility in the negotiation process. Su Wei, director-general of the climate change office within the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s main economic planning agency, has signaled a change in tone, saying, “China will not continue growing emissions without limit or insist that all nations must have the same per-capita emissions. If we did that, this earth would be ruined.” China maintains its hard line that developed countries are historically responsible for climate change, but climate envoy Yu has also backed off somewhat from China’s previous demands that all developed countries commit to 40 percent reductions in carbon emissions by 2020, saying that, “[a] concrete figure has to be decided by the negotiations; we will get a result in Copenhagen.”

All these developments in China are encouraging considering also that South Korea and Mexico, two other non-Annex I countries—developing countries as defined in the U.N. climate treaty process—recently indicated a willingness to enact carbon emissions caps for 2020. This underscores the need for reciprocal action from the United States.

The United States Congress must first move swiftly to enact comprehensive energy and climate legislation to show its own commitment to climate action. We should also properly acknowledge the progress that China and other countries have made in mitigating climate change. One way which we at the Center for American Progress have articulated before is the “carbon caps equivalents” approach, which would quantify the unilateral domestic green measures undertaken by, for example, China, in terms of the effective emissions reductions that such measures yield, and then aggregate those reductions into a single figure that can be compared to proposed emissions reductions targets of other countries

The United States must build upon the modest but significant milestones of U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s visit to Beijing, where the foundations for a joint research center on clean energy were laid, and the recent Strategic & Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C., where both countries agreed formally for the first time to engage each other on climate change.

The United States must muster political and financial resources to engage China on the joint acceleration of clean-energy technology development and deployment. Such a bilateral effort will send a message to the rest of the world that the two largest emitters are ready to rise to the challenge and lead the way forward towards a global agreement in Copenhagen.

Julian L. Wong is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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