Last week, China released a draft of its First National Climate Change Assessment. The draft mostly focuses on the impacts that China will likely face due to global warming, but it also reportedly includes a goal of reducing China's carbon intensity by 40% by 2020, and 80% by 2050. The draft is not official (the official release of the separate Action Plan has now been indefinitely delayed), but in any case it signals the first time that China has considered an emissions target in any form.
GHG intensity targets like China's specify emissions in terms of production or consumption, such as GDP or energy use. By contrast, absolute targets reduce emissions from some absolute level. For example, emissions targets in the Kyoto Protocol are roughly based on 1990 levels specified in metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2).
Intensity targets often look good on paper: a 40% reduction sounds pretty good. But the difficult part of an intensity target is that it's hard to determine if emissions actually would go up or down, since it depends on what happens to production. So to analyze if China's target (or any other target) would be "strong" or "weak," you must look at the bigger picture.
First, consider that China's CO2 intensity in 2003 was 701 tons tC02/mill. $Intl PPP. In terms of intensity, China ranks 30th in the world, and 7th among top 25 emitters. Here are some country comparisons:
Source: Climate Analysis Indicators Tool, World Resources Institute
A 40% intensity cut would therefore put China in 2020 about where Germany is today, or about 20% below the current world average.
China's CO2 intensity declined by 50% from 1990-2003. That means a 40% cut over 20 years is not significantly different from the historic trend. But it's not entirely fair to conclude that China's -40% target is "business as usual." Carbon intensities generally decline in countries that shift away from energy intense industries (including most industrialized countries), but the trend is the opposite in countries on the receiving end of those shifts. For instance, if carbon-intense industries like cement and steel continue to move to China, as is expected, then its -40% intensity target might be a significant goal in a global context.
By contrast, intensity trends and policies look very different in industrialized countries. In the United States, carbon intensity dropped by 16% from 1992-2002, driven in part by shifts away from heavy industry and manufacturing. Compared to that, the Bush Administration's intensity target of -18% from 2002-2012 really is "business as usual" because changes in U.S. economic structure would have the same result without the policy.
In any case, China's GDP is projected to grow around 400% by 2020. So even with a 40% intensity cut, emissions in the absolute sense would increase by 250%. That growth would make China the biggest national emitter by far, and a daunting challenge for reducing GHG emissions.
Intensity targets in and of themselves are not good or bad. An aggressive intensity target could produce significantly fewer emissions—even in the absolute sense—than a weak absolute target. And absolute targets can be dubious if emissions "decline" because of economic recession or energy-intense industries that move overseas. In the end, it's not the form of the target that matters; it's the real effect it will have on achieving low-carbon technologies and economies.