UNITED NATIONS -- Chinese President Hu Jintao is expected to announce today a sweeping climate change package that some here claim may elevate China to a leadership position on climate change.
While the details are still cloaked in mystery, U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer and others close to China's climate negotiating team say it will likely take the form of a "suite" of voluntary targets for emissions with domestically enforceable measures. It will include standards for China's industrial-sector emissions, automobiles and new targets for building efficiency.
De Boer called the plan "very ambitious" and suggested it will increase pressure on the United States to commit to a target.
"It will take Chinese emissions very significantly away from where they would have been, and it will take China to become the world leader on addressing climate change," he said. "It will be quite ironic to hear that tomorrow expressed in a country [the United States] that is firmly convinced that China is doing nothing to address climate change."
In addition to domestic targets, China appears poised to launch a voluntary carbon-trading system. Yesterday, the China Beijing Environmental Exchange announced it will create a Chinese carbon standard, dubbed the "Panda Standard." It plans to release more details this afternoon.
Nearly 100 world leaders will meet today for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's first-ever Summit on Climate Change. The one-day meeting on the eve of the 64th U.N. General Assembly is aimed at sparking the political momentum needed for countries to reach a global deal in Copenhagen this December.
President Obama will address the session this morning. Climate activists said leaders are counting on him to show the world that the United States, which walked away from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is now willing to lead the world on curbing emissions.
Yet with domestic cap-and-trade legislation delayed in the Senate, perhaps until 2010, the attention in New York has shifted to China. Together, the United States and China emit nearly half the world's greenhouse gases, and commitment from both countries is considered crucial to any new treaty.
An 'ironic' challenge to the U.S.
The United States insists it will not enter a treaty unless it makes demands from fast-developing nations as well as industrialized ones. China, along with other developing nations, meanwhile, has insisted that the United Staes act first and also deliver significant financing to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.
De Boer called it "ironic" that "the countries President Obama was calling on to engage are showing leadership to a degree that the international community is saying, 'Where is the U.S. on all of this?'"
Already, though, a number of critics are are raising questions about China's announcement. Derek Scissors, an expert at the Heritage Foundation, said he believes Chinese leaders will simply "repackage" steps they're already taking -- steps that Scissors said are insignificant without serious steps to significantly scale back fossil fuel production.
Scissors said a meaningful target that included some form of international transparency would make waves in Congress, but predicted that anything short of that would fall flat.
"If it doesn't get the coal portion of the energy mix back to where it was in the '90s, it doesn't matter. None of it matters," he said.
A signal that will motivate U.S. senators?
William Chandler, an expert on energy and climate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he believes China's announcement could change the international political dynamic.
"I believe that there are enlightened senators on both sides of the aisle who understand the significance of what China is doing who would welcome this," he said. But, he added, "I also think there's a fringe who will always use suspicions about China to undercut any deal, and I don't think China can do anything about that."
Asked whether China's commitments would be subject to international verification, de Boer suggested that might depend on whether the country's actions were linked to international funding.
"The world is not expected to take China's word, but in a process like this, words are very important," he said.
Meanwhile, tomorrow, small island states and other vulnerable countries will try to remind industrialized nations about the stakes.
In meetings yesterday, the Alliance of Small Island States pushed an international commitment to limit global temperatures to a 1.5 degree Celsius increase over preindustrial levels. That's more ambitious than the currently agreed-upon limit of a 2 degree increase.
"More recent science shows that we are on track for sea level rise of at least 1 and maybe 2 meters by the end of the century. That would spell disaster, even disappearance, for some of our islands," said AOSIS Chairwoman Dessima Williams.
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