27 November 2009

China's Carbon Intensity Pledge

China has put some numbers on its carbon intensity pledge -- that is, its aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP. China has promised to reduced its carbon intensity of GDP by 40-45% by 2020. While a few folks have been fooled (or are trying to fool you) into thinking that it is meaningful, others including the Obama Administration are not fooled. The reality is a bit more subtle and complex than either of these perspectives.

The head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change , Yvo de Boer spun the announcement as a breakthrough:
"The US commitment to specific, mid-term emission cut targets and China's commitment to specific action on energy efficiency can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement. Let there be no doubt that we need continued strong ambition and leadership,"
In The New York Times, the Obama Administration was a bit less enthusiastic:
A senior Obama administration official said that the United States had pressed hard for a public commitment from China and was relieved that it had delivered. But the official, who spoke anonymously because of the delicacy of the matter, called the carbon intensity figure “disappointing,” and said that the administration hoped it represented a gambit that would be negotiated upward at Copenhagen or in subsequent talks.
Understanding the various receptions of the proposed target from China requires understanding a bit of the geopolitical context. Europeans simply want the US and China to come to the table talking about numbers, so any proposal is a step forward. Meantime, the US wants to avoid being cast as the international climate bad guy so will do whatever it can to portray its own proposed 17% cut from 2005 levels as more ambitious that China's intensity target.

But what do the numbers actually mean?

A 40-45% cut in carbon intensity in China is essentially business-as-usual as projected by the IEA. According to the IEA World Energy Outlook 2009 (p. 350), here are China's GDP and CO2 projections under its BAU "reference scenario" (with GDP in 2008 PPP dollars):

2007 -- 6.1 GtC and $7.6T
2020 -- 9.6 GtC and $18.8T

These numbers result in a decrease in carbon intensity of GDP of 40% by 2020 (from 2007 values, China's pledge is off a 2005 baseline, so right in the middle of the 40-45% range).

Other analysts have seen the proposal as little more than a promise to achieve business as usual, from the NYT:

Michael A. Levi, director of the climate change program at the Council on Foreign Relations, called the target announcement disappointing because it did not move the country much faster along the path it was already on.

“The Department of Energy estimates that existing Chinese policies will already cut carbon intensity by 45 to 46 percent,” Mr. Levi said. “The United States has put an ambitious path for emissions cuts through 2050 on the table. China needs to raise its level of ambition if it is going to match that.” Some environmental advocates have also said that the substance of Mr. Obama’s announcement on Wednesday was weak as well.

President Bush also used a carbon intensity target with goals based on achieving business as usual, and his administration was skewered (and rightly so) for trying to couch business as usual 9BAU) as some sort of meaningful emissions reduction policy. The difference between the Bush Administration's carbon intensity goals and those promised by China are that the Bush Administration based its targets on historical BAU whereas China has its based on BAU inclusive of a set of very aggressive energy efficiency goals. I recently had a correspondence in Nature questioning China's BAU trajectory (more details here and here and here). While the IEA numbers suggest a less aggressive version of BAU than do China's domestic numbers, they still imply an annual average rate of decarbonization of China's economy of about 3.7% per year.

A focus on carbon intensity of economic activity is a step in the right direction. At the same time, policy makers and analysts should not be distracted by the details of China's promises in the context of various BAU reference scenarios. What matters is the actual annual rate of decarbonization in coming years, and to discern this will require good data on both emissions and economic activity. If China can sustain a rate of decarbonization of 3.7% per year or more that would be a very impressive achievement. However, if China is going to continue to grow its economy at 9% per year, it is obvious that much more would need to be done to address ever growing emissions.

Bottom line? China's decarbonization target is indeed very similar to some versions of BAU, suggesting a lack of ambition. At the same time these versions of BAU already have rapid rates of decarbonization built in, so much so that I am skeptical about their realism. Even so, discussions about climate these days are more focused on politics than policy, so the exact details of China's emissions policy probably matter less than how its promises are perceived and spun in the negotiating process.


  1. You are correct that President Bush was skewered for his position on global warming. In fact, he seems to have been skewered more than the people at CRU who deliberately falsified data, lied about it, and attempted to have people who questioned them removed from positions of authority. To me this is more an indictment of the climate science community than it is of President Bush.

    What happens if we do nothing to decarbonize the world? I asked this question before and didn't receive an answer, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to want to know what happens if we do not spend trillions of dollars on decarbonization.

    If the climate science community has determined that decarbonization is necessary, it seems that there is no need for further federally funded climate science research and the money would be better spent funding nuclear power plants.

  2. I am sure that Chinese officials would never lie about emmissions and that there will be full international oversight(NOT). China's apparent co-operation is essential for first world public approval of Co2 reduction.

    When these issues are interminably discussed, there is the constant (understood) repetition of the acceptance of 'global warming' science.

    I am reading Lomborg's book 'Cool it'.

    He makes it clear in numerous ways that even if one were to naively believe that the political portrayal of global warming wasn't wild exaggeration, reducing Co2 is not the way to solve it.

    He also makes it clear that a rise in temperature may not even be a serious issue because it will happen in regions where it won't be such a problem, it will happen mostly at night and will certainly give rise to many fewer human deaths because it will be less cold.

    What makes me a sceptic is the above and the multi trillion dollar carbon trading derivative market already under way. I do not believe for one second that global warming is a grand, invented conspiracy but has been used opportunistically a number of times. Currently by the banks.

  3. I came up with similar numbers. Using a 40% reduction per unit of GDP, which I doubt they'll meet, and 8% GDP growth, I estimated their release would be 5 GtC in 2020 above that in 2005, about a 90% increase.

    The US's pledged 17% reduction in absolute amount, which I don't think we'll meet either, will result in a 1 GtC reduction in 2020 over 2005.

    The net result will therefore be a 1 GtC transfer of 'carbon credits' from the US to China, plus an extra 4 GtC increase in their emissions. Lots more CO2 into the atmosphere, an increase in the rate of accumulation, and a significant stricture on the US economy.

    Is this progress?

  4. I think the target is fairly ambitious given that Chinese energy intensity went nowhere from 2000 to 2007. My modelling suggests that this goal wouldn't happen under a realistic BAU scenario. Of course, China's renewable energy goal will help a lot. But you can't call that BAU I think. So I'm surprised you think it is weak because usually you are claiming that steep cuts in emissions are unlikely when compared to past BAU intensity reductions. We are writing a paper on the difficulty of achieving the Chinese target for a conference in February. My concern is that China wants to avoid international verification on this target. Maybe that will be what will be negotiated.

  5. No 8% growth and a 45% reduction in intensity means that China's emissions will only rise 18% as their economy more than doubles in size (.55*(1.08^10)). That's why I call it ambitious. The Chinese intensity target is bigger than the US intensity target. If the US economy grows at 3% per annum then a 17% cut in emissions is only a 38% cut in intensity (1-0.83/(1.03^10))... If the US grows less then that the US intensity target is even less.

  6. -4 and 5-David

    You write: "I'm surprised you think it is weak"

    I don't think it is weak, sorry if unclear, I wrote:

    "these versions of BAU already have rapid rates of decarbonization built in, so much so that I am skeptical about their realism"

    Please do point us to your paper when ready!

  7. China is promising to reduce by 40-45% based on 2005 levels. if you take their GDP at 2005 and apply 15 years of growth at 8% per year, that's 217% growth by 2020. Multiply (100+217) by 0.55 and you get 174%, or a 74% growth in emissions. Multiply it by 0.60, and you get 190%.

    You are of course correct that in not improving their efficiency 2005 - 2009, they have made the target far harder to reach. So have we, for that matter. But none of that changes my calculations.

  8. RWP - after posting here I immediately realized that I should compute these figures from 2005-2020 and did that on my blog:


    Conclusion is that the US intensity target is the same as the Chinese one.

  9. How does this compare with the IPCC BAU scenario?

  10. Roger, can you start a discussion as to how President Obama can promise to reduce US emissions by 17% at Copenhagen without Senate approval? Doesn't the constitution specify the Senate is responsible for foreign treaties? I would enjoy reading your political science insights as a new blog posting on this topic (as opposed to a comment response on this thread).

  11. But does the U.S. pledge have anything but symbolic importance? Congress still has to vote the bill into law, and it seems to me that Congress will be even more paralyzed on the Waxman bill than it has been on the Health Insurance bill.

    Plus, Dr. Buiter of the London School of Economics has some tough words for the Waxman bill:

    "The con is on: how carbon credits neuter Cap & Trade"

    He wrote that half a year ago so it may be somewhat dated depending on what changes if any have been made to the Waxman bill since then.

  12. Roger: You may be right about China's BAU being overly optimistic, but depending on whose numbers you chose, it looks like China achieved roughly a 37% to 46% improvement in CO2 intensity from 1990 to 2005. That means the goal China just announced is not that much different from what it has done historically.

    I have to believe that China knew that its goal would be met with disappointment. That China's goal goes little beyond BAU shouldn't surprise anyone. The Chinese (and the Indians, Brazilians, etc.) have said all along that for them to do more, the developed countries would have to provide financial assistance.

    Under the terms of the Framework Convention, certain developed countries (those in Annex II) are obligated to cover the "agreed full incremental costs" incurred by developing countries in complying with the Convention. And the Bali Roadmap (paragraph (1)(b)(ii)), developing countries agreed to take on nationally appropriate mitigation actions “enabled by technology, financing and capacity building” from developed countries (that’s what all that unpleasantness about the comma was all about). So they are on solid negotiating ground.

    I would expect that for the Chinese to move beyond BAU, developed countries are going to have to place on the table significant financial and technology concessions, or no deal.