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Three Answers and Three Questions on China and Climate

The biggest news coming out of the one-day U.N. General Assembly summit on climate change was President Hu Jintao's announcement that China will seek to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by a “notable margin” relative to the 2005 level by 2020. Those are vague words, but it's a significant step for a number of reasons, and the news provides some clues about China's motivations heading towards December's U.N. climate treaty talks in Copenhagen. Present Barack Obama also spoke, highlighting a number of recent initiatives on climate and pledging his commitment to the issue.

Together the United States and China emit 40% of the world's greenhouse gases. But lots of questions remain on both sides of the Pacific. The House of Representatives passed a climate bill in June, but a stalled effort on health care has delayed the Senate from examining the issue. Obama remains weakened by the financial crisis and the increasingly dire picture in Afghanistan and may have less political leverage than he once had.

Three things we learned:

1. China is negotiating. China has never been represented in front of the General Assembly by its president before, so Hu’s appearance there underlines how seriously he takes the climate issue, says Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. Hu seems to understand that putting something on the table is critical to helping motivate the members of the Senate who so far have signaled deep reservations. Of course, 75 days from now in Copenhagen, behind closed doors, China will make major decisions on just how far it wants to go. But the number one emitter in the world has never mentioned a step like this before in public.

Hu didn't say whether the cuts would be considered mandatory, or provide any details, but the announcement should generate at least a bit of momentum in these crucial weeks. "In the past [China has] always talked, ‘Developed world, you go first, and the developing world, we’ll follow,’ ” says Jiang Lin of the Energy Foundation in San Francisco, California. Now, he says, China has showed it might have something to bring to the table without waiting.

2. Money might be even more important to China than cuts. All other major players who have proposed targets have talked about total emissions, not intensity, which indexes emissions relative to economic growth. That fact emphasizes just how central China sees economic concerns when it comes to international climate change negotiations. At a briefing last week, the World Resources Institute’s China Director Zou Zi reminded journalists that China has 700 million people in rural areas with little education, healthcare, or elder care. And in his speech, Hu emphasized China’s poverty.

In terms of Chinese bargaining priorities in Copenhagen, the ways developed countries might pay developing countries as part of the deal may be more important than the actual emissions cuts developed countries are willing to make. Those payments will come in three flavors of so-called climate financing: as part of a bolstered adaptation fund, a new fund to pay developing countries to protect their forests, and money to help poorer countries buy appropriate technology to make their commitments. If money, not cuts, is its bottom line, China may emphasize these funds as much or more than the emissions targets that developed countries bring to the table in Copenhagen.

Another issue might be trade, as China is no doubt alarmed that the House included trade penalties in its bill for countries who do not pass greenhouse gas limits. Assurances that the United States will put this particular saber back in the scabbard might go a long way.

3. China is willing to talk about short-term targets. Up till now, China has mostly focused on long-term aspirational goals when it comes to emissions, reserving its short-term and medium-term targets for goals related to switching to lower carbon energy sources. For example, China has already pledged to reduce its national energy intensity—how much energy it uses per GDP—by one-fifth by 2010. It has passed some of the most stringent efficiency laws or taxes in the world on appliances, vehicles, petroleum, and industries. (Policy analyst and blogger Roger Pielke warns of unrealistic targets in some Chinese proposals.)

But talking about 2020 is crucial to climate scientists, who see quick emission cuts as important as the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in four decades. Lost in the shuffle today may have been Hu's announcement on forests, where he promised by 2020 to increase his nation’s forests by 40 million hectares and forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters relative to 2005 levels. In most climate negotiations the issue is preserving forests at risk, mostly in Brazil and Indonesia. China is now considering asking for help regrowing its forests. "At first they were silent on [forests], then they were cautious on [forests], so this is a good development," says Annie Petsonk of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. She's now looking closely at the proposal to compare it with previous Chinese plans.

Three questions which remain:

1. How intense are we talking? Intensity targets are different than emissions targets: they refer not to cumulative tonnage of greenhouse gases spewing into the atmosphere but rather total tonnage as a fraction of GDP. Theoretically, they can be an effective way to lower emissions, since they can allow a nation to grow its economy and gradually cut the fraction of carbon intensive emitters (say, by building wind farms instead of new coal plants)

But in practice, intensity targets can be a way to claim progress without actually cutting emissions. For example, President Bush also committed to intensity targets in lieu of proposing any national medium or long-term cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. (Specifically, in 2002 he called for cutting the U.S. emissions intensity by 18% by 2012.) The problem was, scientists calculated at the time, under that plan total emissions would rise by 14% in a decade. A tough intensity target by China could mean a lot, or it could just be greenwashing.

2. What happens if the Senate can't finish its deliberations on a climate bill by December? In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) has waffled lately on his pledge to have a climate bill ready by Copenhagen. The U.S. Senate will "obstruct" a deal in Copenhagen "if the United States cannot put a number on the table," said Morgan. But Jiang said there are other things the United States could do between now and then in case the Senate falters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could strengthen fuel economy standards beyond its move last week, which lifted so-called CAFE standards to roughly 36 miles per gallon by 2016. Half the U.S. states have standards that mandate rising fractions of green power for utilities; if the Senate can't pass comprehensive greenhouse gas legislation, says Jiang, it could fall back on a national standard mandating new renewable energy targets for electricity providers.

3. Will actions by developed nations be enough for China? Japan deepened its commitment to carbon cuts at the meeting, and Obama's appearance shows some level of focus on the issue. The European Union has pledged to cut its emissions 20% below 1990 levels, rising to 30% if a post-Kyoto agreement is made. But the United States may show up in Denmark with little more than vague promises and a 6-month-old bill passed only by the House, unsigned by Obama. What will Hu say then?