- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

BEIJING | China’s pledge to reduce its carbon emissions relative to the growth of its economy will not be binding or subject to international verification, Chinese officials say, casting doubts on the effectiveness of any agreements reached this week in Copenhagen.

Specialists on climate change agree that a key to success at the upcoming summit in the Danish capital will be whether China, the United States, India and the European Union can reach a deal reducing their combined emissions. Analysts are expecting the negotiations to result in a list of individual pledges and an agreement to continue talking in 2010.

China, the leading global carbon emitter, will account for about 29 percent of total global emissions by 2030, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

China announced Nov. 26 that it would cut carbon emissions per unit of its gross domestic product (GDP) by between 40 percent and 45 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. The pledge, however, raised many questions about how the reductions would be verified.

Xie Zhenhua, vice director of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top planning body, said China’s carbon-intensity goals would be subject to domestic accountability systems that he did not specify. He said the goals would not be internationally binding nor subject to foreign verification.

The carbon goals will be part of China’s next five-year plan but won’t go into effect officially until 2011, when that plan begins and likely will take time to implement.

China will “reduce the speed of our emissions rise,” but still needs to balance environmental and economic factors, Mr. Xie said.

In addition, because China figures GDP based on industrial production, the cuts would not apply to sectors such as agriculture or transportation, analysts say.

According to the Beijing office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), China’s new policy - if fully implemented - would prevent about 4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released over the next decade, slowing the rate of emissions growth slightly but not markedly diverting China from its upward trajectory.

On Thursday, India announced a similar goal of cutting emissions intensity by 20 percent to 25 percent from 2005 to 2020. Like China, India’s carbon cuts would be relative to GDP.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers report released Dec. 1 said that the United States, the European Union, China and India would account for 63 percent of global carbon emissions between 2000 and 2050. The report also stated that at the current rate of emissions growth, the global “carbon budget” that needs to be met during that period to prevent the worst effects of climate change would be expended in the next 16 years.

The United States has proposed cutting carbon emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and the European Union is committing to cuts of about 20 percent below 1990 levels during the same period.

Asked whether China would commit these domestic targets to a binding international agreement at Copenhagen, officials from the Chinese NDRC have repeatedly stated that these targets would be voluntary.

On Nov. 25, China’s top climate-change negotiator, Yu Qintai, called on developed countries to take the lead in committing to binding targets at Copenhagen and make headway on technology-transfer agreements and financial assistance to help developing countries cut carbon emissions and adapt to climate change.

“It is unfair to ask China, India and other developing countries to shoulder the same responsibility as developed countries,” Mr. Yu said.

China is still industrializing and urbanizing rapidly. Though estimates vary, the International Monetary Fund says China’s per-capita GDP was about $6,000 in 2008, compared with $47,500 in the United States.

“China still needs about 30 years to reach the levels of urbanization in developed countries,” said Chen Hongbo, a sustainable-development specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“More people will move into cities, more buildings will be built, more factories constructed, more cement, steel and energy will be consumed,” Mr. Chen said. “If China isn’t able to invest more in clean energy and isn’t able to use advanced technologies [to reduce carbon-emissions output], the peak will be delayed.”

Mr. Chen said China could reach its carbon-emissions peak by 2030, but this would mean a greater commitment to technology transfer to China by developed countries.

Yang Fuqiang, a climate-change specialist at WWF in China, said most scenarios for an early peak in carbon emissions would mean a major commitment to such technologies as carbon capture and storage, something that has not been tested on a large scale anywhere in the world.

Looking further ahead, if China eventually commits to binding carbon-emissions cuts, it would need a system that accurately verifies its carbon inventory and its reductions across all sectors, not just within industry, something many analysts say China doesn’t have the capacity to do.

In November, the NDRC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration signed a memorandum of understanding to help China build its capacity to create carbon inventories.

“The real need is to develop a system that can be used and updated on a regular basis,” said Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute.

Since many analysts often question the accuracy of China’s GDP figures, a carbon-intensity target that is tied to GDP has also been raising questions. In addition, most provincial governors and mayors are evaluated on GDP performance and energy intensity per unit of GDP performance, and likely will be graded for their carbon-intensity performances as well.

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