11/27/2009, 00.00
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Wen, Obama and the vague promises of Copenhagen

Washington and Beijing make grand gestures about reducing pollution, but use different criteria to do so. The Americans will cut emissions over the very high pollution levels of 2005 whilst the Chinese will reduce per capita emissions, which will allow for 50 per cent increase in overall levels.
Beijing (AsiaNews) – Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next month, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. China’s state news agency, Xinhua, reported that the People’s Republic plans to cut its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 40 to 45 per cent in 2020 over 2005 levels.

Xinhua insisted that the decision by the Chinese Council of State was voluntary and designed contribute to the global efforts against climate change. Financial and fiscal steps will be taken to this effect, including higher taxes or a number of incentives offered to companies to “green” their production.

Beijing’s announcement follows a similar statement by US President Barack Obama, who said he would attend the conference in the Danish capital on 9 December.  

US targets are more modest, 20-25 per cent by 2020, but the president’s decision to go to the conference itself represent a step in the right direction.

The announcement by the two nations was well received by the international community, which took notice of their sense of responsibility and level of concern. Beijing’s change of heart was especially noted.

In late 2007, mainland China overtook the United States as the world’s leading emitter of CO2 from human activities. However, both are about the same when it comes to overall CO2 emissions at 7 billion tonnes. Together, the United States and China contribute 40 per cent of world emissions.

According to the International Energy Agency, China is set to overtake the United States next year as the world’s leading energy user with carbon-belching coal generating 65-70 per cent of its pollution. Still the average Chinese pollutes less than the average American.

Yet, in light of this, Beijing’s pledges do not seem to be as significant as one might think. Cutting emissions in relation to the GDP has smaller impact. Before Copenhagen, Beijing had already announced that it would cut per capita emissions by simply redistributing coal use across its territory.

The same is true for the United States whose commitment to cut emissions is against a benchmark, 2005, which was already quite high.

“We think it represents a relatively small move away from business-as-usual for China [and the United States] and still implies quite a large growth in emissions,” said Nick Mabey, chief executive for the British environmental think tank E3G.  China’s “actual emissions, instead of doubling, will grow around 50 per cent”.

“Everyone would like to see China commit to an absolute limit,” but Beijing “doesn't want to limit its growth prospects,” said Tom Grieder, Asia energy analyst at IHS Global Insight in London. In the end everyone will have to accept China’s position.

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See also
Beijing tells world to fight climate change through one-child policy
China and India make vague promises on climate
Copenhagen, minimum agreement on climate to avoid failure
Everyone at UN waiting to see China’s move on green house gases
Asia-Pacific states and US announce deal on greenhouse gases