U.S., China Emission Reduction Targets: The Right Move

The targets announced last week by the U.S. and China are important developments in the international climate change negotiations. Not only are these announcements critical for settling one of the major issues of the Copenhagen talks — emissions reduction targets — but they also complete the circle of all major countries stepping forward to announce their climate actions for the post-2012 commitment period.  With all the major players in the circle, it makes it safe for each to take serious action without fear of adverse impacts on their international competitiveness.

President Obama’s announcement last week that the U.S. will set an emissions reduction target around 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 was the right move. As I have said in the past, the President is walking a knife’s edge to encourage China and India to act without alienating Congress. The 17 percent emissions reduction target is in the Waxman-Markey bill that the House approved this past summer, so there is already support for it. Coupled with the recent announcements by other major developing countries and Russia, the process that is unfolding at Copenhagen is like turning a huge oil tanker around: Once it is on the right course, it can gain speed quickly. 

For example, just a day after the U.S. announcement, China said it will lower its carbon emissions relative to the size of its economy by as much as 45 percent by 2020, which goes beyond what it already is doing to reduce carbon intensity from business-as-usual levels. China’s 2007 national climate plan set this reduction goal at 20 percent between 2006 and 2010. By the end of 2008, it was on schedule to meet or exceed its reduction target as it has done with its aggressive goals to expand its reliance on renewable energy. If these goals are fully realized, China would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from business-a-usual levels annually by 2010, equal to more than 25 percent of its annual emissions in 2006.  The 45 percent target builds on these current efforts and China has sent a strong signal that it is willing to take responsibility and slow down its carbon emissions growth.

For twelve years, Congress has been asking for action by developing countries and now we have that with Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and China announcing their plans. In addition, yesterday the Indian government said it will come to Copenhagen with a firm proposal on reductions. According to an analysis by my organization, The Center for Clean Air Policy, China, Brazil and Mexico have put in place national laws that collectively, if fully implemented, will reduce their projected growth in emissions by more aggregate tons in 2010 than what current U.S. legislation is projected to achieve by 2015. So the myth that developing countries are not taking action has been shattered.

With targets addressed, the UN talks will continue to move forward particularly on the issue of financing. One key test of an agreement at Copenhagen will be whether it includes concrete funding commitments for a fast start for cooperative efforts between developed and developing countries to take mitigation actions before 2012.  Here is another critical topic where the U.S. will need to signal what it is willing to do to help developing countries take bolder steps to reduce emissions. Passage of a Senate bill, which includes international financing for reduced deforestation, international adaptation and clean technology, would do more to raise developing country action than anything else the U.S. could do.

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