November 26, 2009 / 12:27 PM / 11 years ago

Q+A-What is China's "carbon intensity" target?

BEIJING, Nov 26 (Reuters) - China has unveiled its first firm target to curb greenhouse gas emissions, laying out a carbon intensity goal that Premier Wen Jiabao will take to climate talks as his government's central commitment.

(For the main story on China's carbon intensity target, click [ID:nPEK421])

Following are questions and answers about carbon intensity.


Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of economic output. Often carbon dioxide is measured in tonnes, while gross domestic product (GDP) in a local currency represents economic output, but any units can be used.

Other greenhouse gasses like methane are added to the total by calculating the amount of carbon dioxide that would have the equivalent global warming potential.

Emissions are usually calculated indirectly, through looking at inputs such as the amount of coal burnt in a power plant, rather than attempting to capture and weigh carbon dioxide gas.


Cutting carbon intensity allows China to meet international demands for it to count and curb its emissions, without giving up its insistence that development must come first while millions of Chinese citizens are still living in poverty.

By agreeing to control its emissions China will also pave the way for a carbon market, as accurate measurements of emissions are a vital cornerstone for any market for permits to emit.

However, if China's economy expands too fast, even massive improvements in carbon intensity may not be enough to contain dangerous increases in emissions.

A carbon intensity figure can be worked out for anything from a single factory to an entire country.


Beijing said it faces "special hardships" in meeting the goal, and Chinese experts said after a five-year energy efficiency drive further improvements would be tough.

But the current goal -- to boost energy efficiency 20 percent over the 5 years to 2010 -- has already brought even larger improvements to carbon intensity.

Every tonne of coal saved means a corresponding amount of emissions are avoided. And an expansion of renewable and nuclear power has further cut back China's emissions growth.

So Beijing is likely to be at least halfway to reaching its 2020 goal by the end of next year, many analysts say.


China has repeatedly rejected calls to commit to a peak year or level of emissions because of its worries such a target could hinder efforts to tackle poverty.

A cap could be a logical next step for Beijing if it can meet its initial carbon intensity targets.

Some Chinese experts have said emissions could peak around 2030-2035 with enough spending and the right policies, but officials have been more wary of such ideas. [ID:nPEK276833]

Under the Kyoto Protocol and the U.N. framework which governs efforts to tackle global warming, developing countries do not have any binding obligations to cap emissions.


According to figures published by the United States Department of Energy, China in 2006 emitted 2.85 tonnes of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels for every $1,000 of gross domestic product (GDP), around 15 percent lower than a decade earlier.

In comparison, the United States in 2006 emitted 0.52 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every $1,000 of GDP, while Switzerland produced 0.17 tonnes, and impoverished Chad just 0.07 tonnes.

For further comparisons see: here (Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison and Ben Blanchard; Editing by David Fogarty) ((; +86 10 6627 1203; Reuters Messaging: ((If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to

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