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Q&A on China's Carbon Intensity Target

This post originally appeared on ChinaFAQs.org.

China recently confirmed an ambitious goal to reduce its economy’s carbon intensity by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020. WRI’s China Director Zou Ji, a former Chinese climate negotiator, discusses the significance of this step by the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and what it means for China’s relations with the United States and the world.

Q: Why has China, a developing country, made these ambitious commitments to a clean energy economy?

China has done so because it is in the country’s own interests. First, China has a huge population that will suffer very much from the negative impacts of climate change. Second, China faces a big energy security problem, and energy savings programs can help to address that problem. Third, actions to reduce greenhouse gases will also reduce emissions of health-threatening pollutants common in China such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) nitrous oxides (NOX) and particulates.

If U.S. Senators visited China and witnessed the progress being made in the deployment of renewables and more efficient technologies, they would understand how real and important this agenda is to China.

Q: What is the significance of China’s commitment to the international negotiations on a new climate treaty?

The fundamental significance is that China’s action will encourage other key countries in the negotiations – the United States, the European Union and the other so-called BASIC countries (India, Brazil and South Africa) to take more constructive steps toward a new global agreement. The Copenhagen Accord is a political agreement. My impression is that China wants to reflect the spirit of the Accord in further negotiations within the two track UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) process which they hope will result in some kind of legally binding document at the next Conference of the Parties in Mexico in November. However, China’s intensity target also sends a signal that, no matter how the international process plays out, China will be taking domestic action to transition to a low carbon economy.

Q: What is the significance in terms of U.S. - China relations on climate change?

China-U.S. cooperation in these areas will be very important for two reasons. First, because these countries are the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters and the largest developed and developing countries, the effectiveness of their actions will be critically important to the world’s efforts to address climate change. Second, because the United States has the most advanced clean technologies and China has a huge market. We need to make the two complementary through bilateral and international cooperation. The United States can help China do more, faster, in a way that will benefit China, the United States, and the world.

Q: How can the United States and the international community be sure that these commitments will be fulfilled?

Verifying commitments made by all parties is a matter of trust between countries. There is general agreement that the targets set by developed countries, the nationally appropriate mitigation actions committed to by developing countries, together with assistance in financing, technology and capacity building, must all be subject to monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV).

But for China, I think U.S. questions about verification have good answers. China is already going down this path – of low carbon development – and will continue to do so, because it is in China’s best interests. Moreover, China is preparing to develop a domestic system for greenhouse gas accounting and statistics. This will be a key step in enhancing the basis of the agreed international process for MRV.

Q: How will China meet these ambitious targets? What policy signals and measures will be signposts?

If U.S. Senators visited China and witnessed the progress being made in the deployment of renewables and more efficient technologies, they would understand how real and important this agenda is to China. Energy efficiency measures are being applied in many areas of Chinese life – heating and cooling systems, construction, household appliance codes. Much more money is also being allocated to clean technology development, for example for photovoltaic solar power, electric vehicles, smart grid deployment and carbon capture and storage. The government has shut down many smaller polluting power plants and factories in recent years, and is now considering how to allocate public finance to support the carbon intensity targets, including looking at the feasibility of a carbon tax.

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