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China’s State Council Unveils 40-45% Carbon Intensity Target

China's announcement signals its commitment both to the climate conference in Copenhagen, and its intent to achieve significant domestic emissions reductions.

As we head for our turkeys, the news this morning is that China unveiled its goal to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per unit GDP (its carbon intensity) by 40-45% by 2020, compared with 2005.

This news comes in the form of a decision from the Standing Committee of China’s State Council, its highest policy-making body, and Premier Wen Jiabao said it would be binding domestically on Chinese entities.

This target, coming right before the Copenhagen meeting, is both a domestic and international signal. Internationally, we can see this as part of China’s commitment to a successful Copenhagen meeting. It also comes directly after the U.S. announcement that it would bring a target to Copenhagen, suggesting that the Chinese are serious both in seeking greater developed country commitments and in being willing to respond with greater commitments of their own. While we can’t know for sure, it looks like the discussions during President Obama’s visit to Beijing last week helped pave the way for this result.

The two announcements are also parallel in that our rough calculations suggest that under President Obama’s goal of a 17% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the US would see slightly more than a 40% improvement in carbon intensity, similar to China’s 40-45% range. Because China’s economy is expected to grow more rapidly that America’s during this period (from a much lower base), absolute emissions will continue to grow in China. Nevertheless, China’s goal is in line with what the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s latest scenarios suggest would be necessary from China if the world wants to keep total emissions within a target of 450 ppm, a level that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests gives us a fighting chance of keeping global warming within 2 degrees Celsius.

These estimates are imprecise, because they only include emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and not all six major greenhouse gases---although CO2 is by far the most prevalent greenhouse gas. Additionally, the estimates only account for energy-related emissions, and they are based on uncertain assumptions about GDP growth. Nonetheless they suggest the level of ambition both countries have now committed to. The timing of the US and Chinese announcements also underlines how important each country is to the other on this issue.

The other crucial aspect of China’s announcement is that this is a clear signal to provincial and local officials that they need to focus on all aspects of greenhouse gas emissions control. This overarching goal is backed up by earlier requirements that local and provincial governments write low carbon development plans.

To meet the target, China will need to continue to implement ambitious energy efficiency and fuel switching policies, and the Decision also announces its commitments to do so. It applies the 15% non-fossil energy goal for 2020 to total energy use---not just the power sector. Since most renewable and alternate non-fossil energy is in the power sector, this would mean a much higher percentage of total electricity generation come from non-fossil fuel sources, including renewables and nuclear energy. The Decision also makes formal China’s commitment announced by President Hu in New York to add 40 million hectares of forested land. China’s reforestation over the last 60 years from 8.6% land-cover to almost 20% today is impressive, and this entails an additional commitment.

The goal marks a shift in Chinese policy from focusing separately on three major components of its climate policy---energy efficiency, the mix of energy sources, and reforestation policy---to creating a single metric that focuses directly on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. It is thus more complex to manage than the separate measurement for the different aspects of the policy, but it may give local and provincial governments more flexibility in optimizing the mix of measures they choose to reduce greenhouse gases. In other words, in some areas, the major gains may be from efficiency programs, while others might choose to focus on renewable energy investment.

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