At the United Nations Climate Summit on Tuesday in New York, President Obama issued a strong challenge to the Beijing leadership. China and the United States “have a special responsibility to lead” on climate change, he said. “It’s what big nations have to do.” Obama said he had talked directly with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli at the summit (President Xi Jinping did not attend) and urged the two countries to work together to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.
China is not likely to warm to the challenge. First, China has already committed itself to carbon-reduction targets that, at least on paper, are more ambitious than the US plan. Last month, China announced that it would launch a nationwide carbon cap-and-trade system, which, if it goes to plan, will be the largest carbon-reduction market in the world. China has the largest deployments of solar power in the world and has established significant new installations in wind and hydro power. The country is currently on track to reach its goal of reducing the CO2 emissions per unit of GDP output by 40–45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. According to vice premier Zhang, China has already achieved a reduction of 28.8 percent.
Most of China’s ambitious climate policies are based on its “war on air pollution”—a series of policies launched by Beijing this past spring to combat the country’s growing pollution crisis. The “war” includes plans to reduce air pollution by 25 percent from 2012 levels by 2017. Most of the reductions will come from Beijing’s heat and power-generation sectors, including a 50 percent reduction in coal use in that city [PDF]. The cities of Hebei, Tianjin, Shandong, Chongqing and Shaanxi have also set hard targets for coal reduction.
Most notably, Zhang Gaoli said at the UN Climate Summit that China would announce new emissions reduction targets “as soon as possible,” including a target for “the peaking of total carbon dioxide emissions.” According to Professor Angel Hsu of Yale University, we can expect China to provide more specifics on its peak emissions target in its next Five Year Plan, due out in 2016. At that time, according to Hsu, “China will potentially announce an absolute cap in emission.” China has already announced peak emissions levels for “high carbon sectors” like cement and steel. The scientific community has long stated the importance of a total emissions cap. But so far, no other country has taken the important step of committing to one.