A leading Chinese scholar's assertion that China is poised to enact a carbon emissions cap was met with praise and caution in the United States yesterday.
He Jiankun, a professor at Tsinghua University and deputy director of China's National Expert Committee on Climate Change, set off alarm bells when Reuters reported his comments that China will make its greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2030.
Coming on the heels of the Obama administration's announcement of a 30 percent cut in power plant emissions by 2030, He's statement heightened hope for the international climate negotiations.
But He is not a government official. And in a country not known for its transparency, observers said deciphering whether the professor spoke with the government's blessing or was merely repeating a position he has long advocated and researched -- publishing a report on the subject in the journal Energy Policy in 2012 -- is a tricky business.
"What he said shouldn't be considered official, but he is one of the most important advisers on climate change. His views are very important, and his team is very involved in this research," said Ailun Yang, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute think tank.
Speaking at a conference in Beijing, He said an emissions cap would be included in the China's next five-year plan, which covers the years 2016-20. The peak will likely come in 2030, he told Reuters, with China's emissions at about 11 billion metric tons of C02 equivalent.
"The government will use two ways to control CO2 emissions in the next five-year plan, by intensity and an absolute cap," he said.
Yang said part of the Chinese government's strategy includes using advisers to float policies before they are official and called He's comments significant. Others, though, noted that the Chinese government has given no indication that an official policy is forthcoming.
"There are a handful of scholars in China who are really important to the [climate change] policy discussion," and He is one of them, said Joanna Lewis, an assistant professor at Georgetown University and expert on Chinese energy policy. But, she noted, "Their academic work is certainly influential to policy. It doesn't set policy."
The comments also sparked a wave of inaccuracies. A number of news outlets reported that the cap would come in 2016; others erroneously described He's comments as China's official emissions pledge to the U.N. climate change treaty talks.
Yang Fuqiang, a senior adviser on energy and climate change at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing, said, "I think Reuters misinterpreted He Jiankun's point. He did not say China will set a total emissions cap in 2016. He said China will set the cap in the nation's next five-year development plan, which ranges from 2016 to 2020."
Indeed, by evening yesterday, He had backpedaled, telling Reuters that his comments had been only his "personal view."
He could not be reached by ClimateWire for comment.
Still, climate analysts said that whether or not He's statements were an indication of policy to come, China does have major new policies in the works.
Lewis noted that last year, for the first time ever, the country known for building "a power plant per week" installed more non-fossil-fuel power capacity than fossil-fuel capacity. Meanwhile, she said, the government in light of devastating air pollution problems is considering a total cap on coal consumption by 2020. That, she noted, opens the door to a peak emissions year.
NRDC's Yang agreed, saying that He's predictions are also in line with his expectations. He said that if China's coal consumption peaks by 2020, which many researchers believe will happen, there is near certainty that emissions will then peak by 2030.
"The possibility that China's coal consumption will peak by 2020 is very high," he said. "In the past, there was no consensus among government institutes, companies and the general public in terms of reducing coal use. But since air pollution has become a crisis in China, we have that consensus now," Yang said. "The central government has exerted so much effort, spent so much money and got the Chinese society on its side. If this still can't bring a peak on coal consumption, I don't know what can."
In Bonn, Germany, where diplomats are meeting for a midyear U.N. climate negotiating session, both the U.S. power plant targets and the suggestion from China were greeted with circumspection by representatives of the countries most affected by climate change.
"We welcome the emission reduction announcements by the two top GHG emitters, because these provide high hopes for the success of 2015 agreement," Prakash Mathema, who leads the group of least-developed countries in the negotiations, told ClimateWire.
But he said both possible targets, "whilst useful, may not be enough to put the world on a less-than-2-degree-Celsius pathway. So we look forward to further improvements in these policies, and announcements from other big emitters, as well."
Reporter Coco Liu contributed.