The Road to Copenhagen [ID:nLL660624]
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* China's first acknowledgement it must curb emissions
* Unveiling at UN clear signal to international community
* Could be bolder than energy intensity target
By Emma Graham-Harrison
BEIJING, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao's pledge this week to cut "carbon intensity" marked Beijing's first acceptance that it must control emissions, a pivotal shift that could alter the dynamic of global climate change talks.
It seemed obscure and technical to many, with no hard number to anchor the target or boost pressure on other major emitters, and some critics claimed the new objective was little more than a dressed up extension of existing "energy intensity" goals.
But buried amid stodgy language and recycled commitments to cleaner energy was China's first recognition of a responsibility the rest of the world has long urged it to shoulder -- that of counting and curbing its emissions of greenhouse gases.
Previously, Beijing had always argued that although it would attempt to control greenhouse gas output, as a developing country China could not accept any specific targets because they might hinder the fight against poverty.
As China is now the world's top emitter, the shift should smooth talks on a new global framework to tackle climate change, due to be finalised at UN-led talks in Copenhagen in December.
Rich nation demands for major emerging economies to accept greater commitments have been one of the key stumbling blocks.
Hu's decision to unveil the new policy in a rare address to the United Nations was also a sign to the international community that climate change has become a priority for China's leaders.
"It was enormously important," said Deborah Seligsohn, China programme director at the World Resources Institute in Beijing.
"And the fact that, when Hu was addressing the United Nations, this was the subject he chose to speak on -- I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of that as well."
The lack of a firm target was in line with Chinese leaders' tradition of unveiling big-picture new initiatives and leaving officials to fill in the gaps, Seligsohn added.
The country's climate change chief has already promised that hard figures will soon follow. And the National Statistics Bureau is preparing carbon calculation methods, because it has been told controls will start from 2011, sources say.
MORE THAN ENERGY INTENSITY
The carbon commitment has been seen as a natural extension of an existing goal to reduce energy intensity 20 percent between 2006 and 2010, which did indirectly rein in emissions by promoting more efficient use of fossil fuels.
But that target was driven largely by energy security and air pollution worries and did not affect Beijing's stance that it had no duty to set firm controls on carbon dioxide output.
Energy intensity measures only the amount of fuel needed to generate each dollar of economic output, but does not differentiate between renewables and other types of power, or encourage controls on non-energy related emissions.
A factory seeking to meet a carbon intensity target could choose whether to boost efficiency or invest in renewables like wind or solar to provide its power.
Carbon targets could also provide an incentive for emissions cuts which make little sense in energy terms alone, such as an expensive system to capture and burn methane -- which has a much greater warming effect than carbon dioxide -- in a coal mine.
China may also have room to make its emissions targets even more ambitious than those for energy efficiency.
Every gram of fuel saved will mean a corresponding reduction in emissions, but there will be additional reductions from a planned roll-out of renewables, which should provide 15 percent of the country's energy in 2020.
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).
This was 15 percent lower than a decade earlier, suggesting China would need to set itself a relatively ambitious target for carbon intensity to get a large deviation from business as usual.
In comparison, the United States in 2006 emitted 0.52 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every $1,000 of GDP.
NOT ENOUGH FOR COPENHAGEN
Hu's promise disappointed those who took strong Chinese hints of a new policy to mean it would be something powerful enough to kickstart the global talks.
"I think it hurts momentum," said Nick Mabey, head of London-based think-tank E3G.
But the new target could pave the way for a deal between China and the United States, the world's number two emitter and one of the most outspoken critics of Beijing's emissions policy.
Former President George W. Bush set a U.S. carbon intensity goal after rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, so it is hard for Washington to dismiss Hu's plans out of hand.
It also appeals to those in the financial industry who hope to see China set up a carbon trading scheme, as it will boost Beijing's ability to measure output of greenhouse gases, which is key to any market in credits to emit.
And a carbon intensity target could dovetail with plans touted by some players in the European Union for "sectoral carbon crediting", to extend the carbon market after 2012.
Under this system, companies in sectors like steel and power that beat a certain emission or energy intensity benchmark would qualify for carbon offset credits which would be tradable in Europe's emissions trading scheme. (Editing by Nick Macfie)