Climate: China defends its reputation

COPENHAGEN Over the past few days, a number of national delegations – not least the United States’ – have criticized implicitly, if not explicitly, China’s unwillingness to accept binding limits on its greenhouse-gas emissions or the measurement of its emissions by outside auditors. This morning, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao addressed a plenary meeting of the United Nations climate-change conference – populated by more than 100 heads of heads of state – to make his case that China has embarked on an earnest step toward substantive climate protection.

“China was the first developing country to adopt and implement a national climate change program,” he said. Through a host of laws, it has tightened energy conservation, promoted renewable energy sources and expanded the real estate devoted to carbon-storing forests and grasslands. Government subsidies have offered consumers incentives for energy-saving products and “environment friendly vehicles.” He didn’t elaborate on what type of products or vehicles.

But he was willing to tout some numbers of what these programs have achieved: By June 2009, he said, “China’s energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) had dropped by 13 percent from the 2005 level, equivalent to reducing 800 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.” Presumably that’s a cumulative figure. He didn’t say (and we have to work from a translation; he gave his talk in Chinese). In the three year period ending in 2008, “renewable energy increased by 51 percent.” Its contribution in 2008 was equivalent to the energy in 250 million tons of coal.

Trees inhale CO2, storing the carbon in their tissues. As such, preservation of existing forests and planting new ones are both strongly encouraged by various facets of the Kyoto Protocol – and the language under discussion for any new accord. And Wen noted with pride that “We have continued with the large-scale endeavor to return farmland to forest and to expand afforestation” as a carbon sink. Toward that end, it’s increased forest cover by 20.54 million hectares (~80,000 square miles) between 2003 and 2005. Today, China has the world’s largest “man-made” – i.e. reforested territory: 54 million hectares.

With enormous coal resources and a population of 1.3 billion people to warm, electrify and move (think trains), China notes that the easy route would be to just burn that carbon. Like the United States, it’s not prepared to give up on coal, but Wen said it is enacting policies to cut the growth of its carbon footprint. Over the 15-year period beginning in 1990, China increased it energy-use efficiency. Overall, it dropped its CO2 emissions per unit GDP by 46 percent, he noted. And in the following 15 years (to 2020), the country plans to improve this energy intensity (CO2 per unit GDP) another 40 to 45 percent.

This new target “will be incorporated into China’s mid- and long-term plan for national economic and social development as a mandatory one,” Wen said, so as “to ensure that it’s implementation is subject to supervision by law and public opinion.” The international community should make “concrete and effective” commitments under any new treaty, he said, but merely urge developing countries “to do what they can.”

For its part, Wen says, China has set ambitious voluntary goals for limiting the growth in its releases of greenhouse gases and “we will honor our word with real action.”

Notice that no mention was made of the need for transparency in measuring and verifying adherence to emissions pledges – the lack of which, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday, would prove a “deal breaker” when it comes to any global climate-protection accord.

And that accord is due . . . a few hours from now.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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