Hu speaks — what next?

How did the experts respond to Hu Jintao’s speech on climate change? Julian L Wong sees China sending a strong message. Isabel Hilton writes that obstacles remain on the road to Copenhagen.

“China is sending a strong message” – Julian L Wong

President Hu Jintao of China announced that China will build on existing domestic climate change policies as embodied in its National Climate Change Programme and current Five Year Plan to step up its efforts on energy efficiency, development of low-carbon energy such as renewables and nuclear, and increase of forestry cover.

Most noteworthy was president Hu’s introduction of a new goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product from 2005 levels by 2020 by a “notable margin.” No specific numbers were provided, but this should not be surprising as such a far-reaching national policy must undergo various necessary legislative steps before it can become domestically binding. However, China’s willingness to translate its existing domestic energy conservation goals, often discussed in terms of amount of energy consumed, into a metric that is consistent with the language of international climate policy, i.e. carbon emissions, is the clearest signal yet that China is willing to take on responsibilities that are commensurate with its resources and global emissions impact.

This policy has at least three important implications. First, it would undoubtedly set China on a path to slow down its carbon emissions growth. How quickly such a deceleration leads to a peaking of China’s total emissions depends on the specific carbon intensity targets, but senior Chinese officials have recently given public assurance of China’s desire to peak its emissions “as early as possible.”

Second, a shift of focus from energy intensity to carbon intensity will help accelerate China’s transition to a low-carbon economy. The current energy intensity standard does not distinguish between energy derived from high-carbon fossil fuels and low-carbon renewables or nuclear. By framing China’s efficiency goals in terms of carbon emissions, low-carbon sources of energy will be favoured. A carbon intensity policy would thus not only encourage more efficient use of fossil fuels, as the current energy intensity goal does, but also amplify China’s already ambitious targets on renewable energy deployment.

Third, the policy implicitly commits China to measure, report and verify (MRV) carbon emissions on an ongoing basis. It remains to be seen whether this process will meet the standards transparency that the international community seeks. But contrary to popular wisdom, fairly sophisticated mechanisms for MRV already exist for many of China’s major energy and environmental policies, as a recent study from the World Resources Institute reveals.

The significance of president Hu’s announcements are best understood in the context of other very recent Chinese policy developments. In August, China’s State Council, led by premier Wen Jiabao, set the objective of incorporating climate change considerations into the medium- and long-term development strategies and plans of the Chinese government at every level. Later the same month, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, essentially the inner circle of China’s main legislative body, adopted a resolution on climate change action that explicitly calls for the strengthening of domestic climate legislation while giving assurance that it will be a constructive player in the international climate process.

Taken together, China is sending a strong message that it is serious about tackling climate change and is shaping a comprehensive approach that begins to meet the expectations that the international community has of China. This should serve not only as an indication to the developed countries of China’s good faith on climate action, but also as a catalyst to other developing countries to formulate their own robust low-carbon strategies.

Julian L Wong is senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a policy think-tank based in Washington, DC He is also a founding member of the Beijing Energy Network and blogs on The Green Leap Forward, a site dedicated to discussing China’s energy and environmental issues.

“Formidable obstacles remain” – Isabel Hilton

President Hu Jintao’s speech has been received as a positive signal in this week’s frantic efforts to save the UN climate-change conference in Copenhagen, though rather less on delivery than was promised in advance. Despite warm mood music in New York from India, China and the United States, formidable obstacles remain to a serious agreement in December.

Many of the obstacles are built in to the nature of the process itself: it is conducted in the culture of a global trade negotiation, in which each negotiator enters the room with a mission to maximise his country’s gain and minimise what he gives away. The result in trade negotiations is usually the lowest common denominator. This is not enough in the context of climate change. Even worse, if there is no deal in December, we risk a stalled process, like the Doha round.

Each leader’s message in New York this week is addressed in several directions: to his domestic audience, but also to the domestic audience of his counterparts. Each speech must try to straddle the gap of opposing expectations – simultaneously to convince a domestic audience that not too much is being given away, while convincing the domestic audiences elsewhere that much is being offered.

Has president Hu’s message convinced US opponents of president Barack Obama’s climate bill to allow it to pass the senate? Have Obama’s climate promises persuaded sceptical Indian or European voters that the world’s richest country is carrying its fair share of the effort? Has China been convinced that the Annex I countries are serious about technology transfer? In each of these cases, the answer is no. This is one small step on the road to Copenhagen. The destination still seems worryingly distant.

— Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue

Homepage image: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe