China’s Carbon Intensity Pledge

December 1, 2009 | Breakthrough Staff,

Cross-posted from Roger Pielke Jr.'s Blog

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China has put some numbers on its carbon intensity pledge -- that is, its aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP. China has promised to reduced its carbon intensity of GDP by 40-45% by 2020. While a few folks have been fooled (or are trying to fool you) into thinking that it is meaningful, others including the Obama Administration are not fooled. The reality is a bit more subtle and complex than either of these perspectives.

The head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change , Yvo de Boer spun the announcement as a breakthrough:

"The US commitment to specific, mid-term emission cut targets and China's commitment to specific action on energy efficiency can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement. Let there be no doubt that we need continued strong ambition and leadership,"


In The New York Times, the Obama Administration was a bit less enthusiastic:

A senior Obama administration official said that the United States had pressed hard for a public commitment from China and was relieved that it had delivered. But the official, who spoke anonymously because of the delicacy of the matter, called the carbon intensity figure "disappointing," and said that the administration hoped it represented a gambit that would be negotiated upward at Copenhagen or in subsequent talks.


Understanding the various receptions of the proposed target from China requires understanding a bit of the geopolitical context. Europeans simply want the US and China to come to the table talking about numbers, so any proposal is a step forward. Meantime, the US wants to avoid being cast as the international climate bad guy so will do whatever it can to portray its own proposed 17% cut from 2005 levels as more ambitious that China's intensity target.

But what do the numbers actually mean?

A 40-45% cut in carbon intensity in China is essentially business-as-usual as projected by the IEA. According to the IEA World Energy Outlook 2009 (p. 350), here are China's GDP and CO2 projections under its BAU "reference scenario" (with GDP in 2008 PPP dollars):

2007 -- 6.1 GtC and $7.6T
2020 -- 9.6 GtC and $18.8T

These numbers result in a decrease in carbon intensity of GDP of 40% by 2020 (from 2007 values, China's pledge is off a 2005 baseline, so right in the middle of the 40-45% range).

Other analysts have seen the proposal as little more than a promise to achieve business as usual, from the NYT:

Michael A. Levi, director of the climate change program at the Council on Foreign Relations, called the target announcement disappointing because it did not move the country much faster along the path it was already on.

"The Department of Energy estimates that existing Chinese policies will already cut carbon intensity by 45 to 46 percent," Mr. Levi said. "The United States has put an ambitious path for emissions cuts through 2050 on the table. China needs to raise its level of ambition if it is going to match that." Some environmental advocates have also said that the substance of Mr. Obama's announcement on Wednesday was weak as well.


President Bush also used a carbon intensity target with goals based on achieving business as usual, and his administration was skewered (and rightly so) for trying to couch business as usual 9BAU) as some sort of meaningful emissions reduction policy. The difference between the Bush Administration's carbon intensity goals and those promised by China are that the Bush Administration based its targets on historical BAU whereas China has its based on BAU inclusive of a set of very aggressive energy efficiency goals. I recently had a correspondence in Nature questioning China's BAU trajectory (more details here and here and here). While the IEA numbers suggest a less aggressive version of BAU than do China's domestic numbers, they still imply an annual average rate of decarbonization of China's economy of about 3.7% per year.

A focus on carbon intensity of economic activity is a step in the right direction. At the same time, policy makers and analysts should not be distracted by the details of China's promises in the context of various BAU reference scenarios. What matters is the actual annual rate of decarbonization in coming years, and to discern this will require good data on both emissions and economic activity. If China can sustain a rate of decarbonization of 3.7% per year or more that would be a very impressive achievement. However, if China is going to continue to grow its economy at 9% per year, it is obvious that much more would need to be done to address ever growing emissions.

Bottom line? China's decarbonization target is indeed very similar to some versions of BAU, suggesting a lack of ambition. At the same time these versions of BAU already have rapid rates of decarbonization built in, so much so that I am skeptical about their realism. Even so, discussions about climate these days are more focused on politics than policy, so the exact details of China's emissions policy probably matter less than how its promises are perceived and spun in the negotiating process.