Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Amidst Conflicting Reports, China’s Emissions Message Sets Positive Tone

Posted by Andrew Stevenson on August 20, 2009

Originally posted at Weathervane, RFF’s climate policy blog.

Given the history of global climate negotiations, it is no surprise that a lack of trust remains between developing and developed nations in ongoing discussions for a new international agreement. In the context of the U.S. domestic policy debate, this distrust has—rightly or wrongly—been concentrated on China, and has led to calls for strong measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) provisions in U.S. climate legislation and international agreements. It even led lawmakers to include a provision in the House bill that would require the EPA to report on emissions in China and India (Title V, Sec. 3).

It doesn’t help matters when major media outlets publish conflicting reports so close together (The Financial Times here and China Daily here) about a crucial component to U.S. domestic and international agreements: China’s emissions peaking date. Given the pace of China’s growth this number is arguably much more important than the U.S mid-term target for protecting the global climate, and it is certainly just as important for reaching a new agreement in Copenhagen. It’s also a critical step on the path toward setting a long-term collective global goal.

So climate change and China watchers had a collective heart attack when they read the Financial Times article in which high-level Chinese official Su Wei said China’s emissions would not peak until 2050. This is the equivalent of Deputy Special Envoy on Climate Change Jonathan Pershing stating that the United States will reduce emissions 0 percent instead of 17 percent by 2020. It would basically kill any chance of a global deal.

Thankfully, China Daily followed-up shortly highlighting a recent report by influential Chinese climate policy scholars arguing that the country could and should reach its emissions peak in 2030. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The United States and other developed nations will and should ask for more, but this number is likely to be within the range that they could accept as part of a global agreement. Although it was not an official government position, it’s the next best thing in China. The think tanks that published this report are close government advisers. The fact that they were quoted and featured on one of the nation’s leading English-language news websites indicates that this is a message the government wants the world to receive. China is moving ahead on clean energy with or without you, and is willing to put strong climate goals on the table if others are. An even more recent article indicates that China’s top legislative body will consider a draft resolution on climate change next week lends further credibility to this position.

This is not the first and will certainly not be the last time conflicting reports come out of China on climate or other issues. Since it is in both of their best interests, one would expect that both the media and the Chinese government will continue to improve their MRV procedures inside and outside of a climate agreement. However, it’s important to take the time to sort through the facts and recognize that, in the end, the preponderance of evidence continues to show that China will both do what it takes to be seen as a responsible global citizen on climate change, and will give everything it has to win the race on developing clean energy industries of the future.

Gentlemen, start your wind turbines.

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