China increases its ambition for COP21 – but will it be enough?

July 13, 2015

Posted by: Fran Lawson

In one of the most anticipated moments ahead of the 21st Conference of the Parties, China, the world’s single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, finally showed its hand to the world by delivering its proposed contribution to the Paris Agreement in person to the French Government on 30th June.

The 36-page Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) has received high praise from other key players in COP21, particularly from the French hosts, representing as it does a ‘step up’ from the US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation in November 2014. That announcement itself attracted widespread acclaim as an ‘historic’ step forward in the international climate change effort, largely due to both countries comprising not only the world’s most significant emitters, but also the most recalcitrant participants in the UN climate change negotiations.

The Chinese INDC maintains two of the key pledges made in the Joint Announcement – for a peaking of emissions by 2030, with best efforts to peak sooner if possible, together with a 20% contribution of renewables to the country’s energy mix by the same date. The particular praise being lavished by many political leaders and commentators upon the Chinese INDC relates, however, to two new pledges therein. The first is for a higher decarbonisation target of a 60-65% reduction in CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 2030 relative to the 2005 level – in other words, the Chinese economy will continue to grow whilst emitting far less than would be the case in a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. This is a significant increase on the 40-45% reduction that China pledged in 2009. The second new pledge is that China will increase the extent of its forest cover by 4.5 billion cubic metres by 2030 relative to the 2005 level.

These targets seem achievable – the INDC provides extensive detail on the Chinese mitigation effort to date. In 2014, GHG emissions per unit of GDP were 33.8% lower than the 2005 level; the share of renewables in the Chinese energy mix was 11.2% and the total forested area was nearly 2.2 billion cubic metres. The Chinese INDC commitments therefore represent what the country can feasibly achieve by continuing its existing efforts it in a similar manner.

The problem, from both a climate change perspective and from a legal angle in terms of fulfilling the objective of the Convention, is this – under the INDC, Chinese emissions in 2030 are still going to be considerably higher than they are at present. In other words, the world’s single largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions is going to continue to emit more and more greenhouse gases, year on year, for the next fifteen years. Even without entering into complicated mathematical calculations, it seems impossible that such emissions, together with rising emissions from all of the other ‘developing’ countries as defined by the Convention, can be sufficiently compensated by reducing emissions from the relatively few ‘developed’ countries, or by extra forest cover.

The challenge facing the international community is not to ‘engage significantly’ in reducing greenhouse gas emissions relative to what they would otherwise be. If the challenge was thus, no doubt we could all pat ourselves on the back and feel that we are all doing rather well. The science on climate change is clear, precise and unequivocal – the international community has been told what the maximum level of warming is in order for dangerous climate change to be avoided. The international community has committed, under the Convention, to undertake all efforts to restrict warming to that level. The science has also told us what the maximum level of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases is to keep warming below dangerous levels. Yet international efforts continue to dance around these unmovable, but uncomfortable, scientific realities. Instead of working towards an international legal regime in which we know whether or not we are in line with the science that world leaders all accept and agree on, we are in the process of designing one which enables Parties to ‘do their best’, without even assessing the adequacy of those efforts in relation to the objective of the Convention or the scientific red lines.

As demonstrated by its INDC, there is no doubt that China is committed to developing a greener, more ‘climate-friendly’ economy than it would otherwise have. It is a country that has already made considerable efforts, and its intention is clearly to continue those efforts over the next fifteen years. This, of course, is welcome and deserves recognition. Let’s not pretend, however, that it is going to be enough to respect the scientific red lines and meet the objective of the Convention. That is going to require something far more radical from the world’s single largest emitter. And indeed, from us all.

The Chinese INDC (including English translation), can be found here