A meaningful agreement on climate change doesn’t have to be reached in Copenhagen and it probably won’t be. The Kyoto Protocol was years in the making and underwent revisions – over the course of several conferences of parties involved in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – in between its adoption in 1997 and finalization in 2001.
But in creating a two-year window in which to reach a deal on a successor to Kyoto, governments effectively set themselves a shame-based deadline: Come to Copenhagen with at least something concrete to show for your oft-professed keenness to cut carbon emissions or face international political ignominy. It has become, as we said yesterday, a very political process. Governments want to be seen taking action – and, as the world’s two largest polluters, China and the US perhaps need to be seen to do more than anyone else. So, with the summit just a few weeks away, it has turned into climate change announcement season.
Barack Obama himself will attend the summit in Copenhagen and he is ready to commit the US to a 17% cut in emissions on 2005 levels by 2020. Following this announcement on Wednesday, we speculated whether the momentum had now swung behind the US, effectively placing more pressure on China to compromise.
Yesterday, Beijing responded with a grandstand announcement of its own: Premier Wen Jiabao will travel to Copenhagen and China is willing to cut carbon intensity – the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Apparently these cuts will come from production processes and energy consumption, and don’t include the impact of emissions absorbed by “carbon sinks.”
Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate change official was delighted, saying the US and Chinese commitments “can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement.” He did, however, note that there is still no clarity on how the developed world will provide financial assistance for developing nations to take long-term climate action. This will be a sticking point in Copenhagen. In return for financial aid, the West wants a clear indication of when and how China will start reducing emissions – something developing countries haven’t been obliged to commit to under previous treaties and something China doesn’t want to sign up to in Copenhagen.
Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said China’s plant to cut carbon intensity "shows China’s highly responsible attitude toward the future of mankind." Environmental investors hailed it as a step towards a larger lower-carbon marketplace. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said it would see China shouldering more than a quarter of the carbon emissions needed to avoid dangerous global warming.
But is it sufficient to oil the wheels in Copenhagen? Perhaps only slightly – for two reasons.
First, Europe and the US will want to know how China plans to measure, report and verify carbon intensity cuts (in many cases, the mechanisms for accurate reporting are only just being put in place). Some observers believe that the target itself will be difficult to meet given China’s ongoing industrialization and urbanization.
Second, a reduction in carbon intensity doesn’t equate to a reduction in absolute emissions. China has said – vaguely – that its emissions probably won’t peak until around 2050, which is unlikely to satisfy developed nations committed to making cuts and providing Beijing with money to do the same. Birol says the world needs to reduce emissions by 3.8 gigatons and that China’s carbon intensity cuts could deliver 1 gigaton of this. Yet the country’s coal, oil and natural gas consumption alone generated 6.89 gigatons of carbon dioxide last year – over 20% of the global total – and a study by McKinsey & Company estimates that if China continues on its current energy efficiency-focused trajectory, annual emissions will still amount to 14.5 gigatons by 2030.