There's a story circulating in climate circles that Chinese President Hu Jintao had two speeches in his pocket the day he spoke to the United Nations in New York last month.
One put specific numbers to a new plan of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide China emits for each unit of economic output. The other also vowed a carbon intensity goal but promised only a vague aim of slashing emissions by a "notable margin."
President Obama took the stage first that day, delivering a speech many described as a rhetorically powerful call for the world to fight global warming but devoid of details or promises. Hu spoke next -- and, the story goes, pulled out the noncommittal speech. It was as if he was waiting for a signal that meant the bargaining process could begin.
Now the details are finally in, coming a day after Obama pledged the United States will reduce emissions "in the range of" 17 percent below 2005 levels in the coming decade. China, in return, said it would reduce its carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels over the same period of time.
The goal is essentially where China would get to anyway in the next decade, according to the International Energy Agency. That has prompted some energy analysts to pan the Chinese pledge as insufficient. But the IEA projections also assume serious investments of effort, technology and money on China's part to improve energy intensity, leading others to defend the plans as robust and ambitious.
"It's really difficult to be categorical about whether China's numbers are weak or strong," said Julian Wong, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.
"On the one hand, just to think how rapidly China has turned around from being a nonparticipant in the whole climate change discussion to actually announcing a 10-year target with a concrete number is pretty remarkable," Wong said. And yet, he noted, even under a 10 percent annual GDP growth, China's emissions will still at least double and perhaps even triple. "That's a scary thought," he said.
For China, an abrupt turnaround
According to China's state-run news agency Xinhua, the new intensity target will be a "voluntary action" taken by the government. Deborah Seligsohn, a Beijing-based energy consultant for the World Resources Institute think tank noted that the decision was made by the state council, which is considered binding on the domestic government -- somewhat akin to a Supreme Court decision in the United States.
The goal will require China to achieve a 4 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions each year, based on an annual economic growth rate of 8 to 9 percent. Achieving it, many said, means China will have make major efficiency improvements in its smaller energy-intensive industries, imposing stiff regulations rather than just shutting inefficient plants down as it currently is doing.
Seligsohn is firmly in the camp of those who count China's goal as a serious effort. It is one the government is confident it can meet, she acknowledged, but only because they already have done tremendous work to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy intensity.
Seligsohn and others, including William Chandler, an energy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, note the IEA has modified its outlook for China in recent years based on those steps, like tough new fuel economy standards that exceed the United States'.
"It's really true that 'no good deed shall go unpunished,'" Chandler said in an e-mail. "It was a hell of a rocky road to get China to where it is in the Copenhagen announcement."
Debate over efficacy of carbon intensity
Reducing "carbon intensity," experts agree, essentially boils down to the same thing as simply reducing the rate of carbon emission growth. Calling it an intensity target rather than an emissions cut, however, makes the goal more palatable for developing countries where the annual growth rates remain unpredictable.
Former President George W. Bush in 2002 outlined a carbon intensity goal for the United States that was widely criticized by U.S. and international environmental activists. Under Bush's plan, the United States would reduce GHG intensity 18 percent by 2012.
That target is rarely mentioned these days, but according to Paul McCardle, a spokesman for the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the country is nevertheless on track to meeting it. The target would have required the United States to slash emissions about 1.96 percent each year, and the current average is about 2.1 percent annually, putting the country slightly ahead of Bush's curve, he said.
So why is a carbon intensity target good for China but not the United States? Barbara Finamore, China program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said recently the answer lies in the United States' responsibility as the world's largest historic emitter.
"The U.S. economy is stabilized. The U.S. is a developed country. For the U.S., we can and must go far beyond that," Finamore said.
According to figures published by the U.S. Department of Energy, China uses more than four times as much energy to produce a unit of growth as the United States. In 2006, China emitted 2.85 metric tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels for every $1,000 of GDP, around 15 percent lower than a decade earlier. The United States, with a largely leveled-out growth rate and an increasingly service-oriented economy, emitted 0.52 metric tons for every $1,000 of GDP that year.
Finamore noted China already has an goal of reducing energy intensity 20 percent by 2020. That can be met by using energy more productively. The atmosphere, of course, does not care how efficiently carbon is burned -- just how many tons are emitted. And that is where a carbon intensity target comes in -- consciously trying to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide the nation uses as it grows.
Some criticize the use of carbon intensity goals entirely. John Watson, who chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee that examined energy futures and air pollution in urban China and the United States, called it a diversion from the need to reduce absolute emissions.
"You can have carbon emissions increase substantially, but carbon intensity still goes down. The real key for global warming is the absolute number, not that relative number," Watson said. "The atmosphere doesn't care how much money we make."
Will the bargaining intensify in Copenhagen?
Yet others say a serious carbon intensity goal could make a significant contribution to lowering emissions to the point where a fast-growing country could even plan to peak and finally decline in absolute terms.
"An ambitious carbon intensity target is much better than an unambitious absolute target. The accounting method is not what fundamentally matters," said Michael Levi, a senior energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But the problem with China's goal, Levi argued, is "this carbon intensity target will not result in a peaking of emissions."
Levi and a cadre of other energy experts are taking a harder line with China's announcement. While praising the country for taking serious steps in the past years on climate policy, he noted that if China enacted policies just to meet its existing aspirational goals, it would go beyond the 40 to 45 percent reduction it announced. Had China announced a carbon cut of 5.5 percent annually, he said, the country could have peaked emissions by 2020, after which it could start to reduce it in absolute terms.
Ken Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution agreed. "Basically, it's a continuation of the same trend line they're on," he said. "This still does not reflect raising the bar, and I think the bar does need to be raised."
How will China be accountable?
Even Finamore, who has largely praised China's plans for a carbon intensity goal, said in a statement after the announcement that both the United States and China should "raise the level of their ambition in Copenhagen and aim for the higher end of their ranges."
Derek Scissors, a research fellow at the Heritage Institute who focuses on China, said he worries that tying carbon levels to growth rates gives the Chinese government an incentive to exaggerate GDP -- a problem he described as already rampant in the provinces.
"The faster your growth, the better you appear to be doing on environmental integrity. And we know provincial reporting is terrible," Scissors said.
Meanwhile, Chinese leaders also maintained that the country would not allow itself to be held internationally accountable for its goals. Seligsohn said she believes that position is still open to negotiation, and many analysts said securing a reporting agreement from China is just as key as improving the basic numbers.
It remains to be seen what impact, if any, China's announcement will have on Congress' debate over domestic cap-and-trade legislation. So far, the comments from politicians are largely predictable, with Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming praising China's target and Republicans blasting it.
As delegates from nearly 200 countries pack their bags and prepare for Copenhagen, analysts from all quarters said they hope to see more from both countries.
"All politicians, Americans and Chinese and everyone else, if they're going to go, they want it to seem there would be a success," Scissors said.
"If these are bargaining positions, if this is a start, then this is very positive because we didn't have anything on the table before." Otherwise, Scissors said, "It's just a stunt to make Copenhagen look worthwhile."