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By ZhongXiang Zhang

HONOLULU (Nov. 30, 2009)—With countries from around the world set to meet in Copenhagen starting December 7 to try to hammer out a new climate change agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012, no one would disagree that a U.S. commitment to cut carbon emissions is essential to such a global pact.

However, despite President Obama’s recent announcement he will push for a commitment to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020, in reality it is questionable whether Congress will agree to specific emissions cuts without imposing carbon tariffs on Chinese products to the U.S. market, even given China’s own recent announcement that it will “voluntarily” seek to reduce its carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent over the same period.

This dilemma is partly attributed to flaws in current international climate negotiations, which have been focused on the two targeted commitment dates: 2020 and 2050. While 2020 leaves very little time for both the U.S. and China, 2050 seems too far away for politicians to take on.

In my view, if the commitment period is extended to 2030, it would really open the possibility for the U.S. and China to make the commitments that each wants from the other side. By 2030, the U.S. will be able to commit to much deeper emission cuts, as China and developing countries have demanded, while China would have approached the threshold to take on the absolute emission cap that the U.S. and other industrialized countries have long asked for.

If international negotiations could lead to much deeper emission cuts for developed countries as well as absolute emission caps for major developing countries in 2030, that would significantly reduce the legitimacy of the U.S. proposed carbon tariffs and, if implemented, their prospect for withstanding a challenge before World Trade Organization.

Given that China is already the world’s largest carbon emitter, and its emissions continue to rise rapidly in line with its industrialization and urbanization, there is no question that China eventually needs to take on binding emissions caps. The trick is in establishing obligations that would fully respect China’s right to economic growth, while at the same time reflecting its increasing responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions as its standard of living rises.

To put China in a positive position, I propose that China should negotiate a requirement that greenhouse-gas emissions in industrialized countries to be cut at least by 80 percent by 2050 relative to their 1990 levels and that per-capita emissions for all countries by 2050 should be no higher than the world’s average at that time. Then, at the right time, China could signal well ahead that it will take on binding absolute emission caps around the year 2030. Understandably, this date is later than the time frame that the U.S. and other industrialized countries would like to see, while from China’s perspective, it would probably be still too soon.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended that in order to avoid dangerous climate change consequences, global greenhouse-gas emissions would need to peak by 2020 at the latest and turn downwards afterwards. So, while it is not unreasonable to grant China a certain grace period, delaying its adoption of emissions caps beyond 2030 is not acceptable. By that time, China’s per-capita income is likely reach a very reasonable level, while its per-capita carbon emissions will be well above the world’s average.

It is unlikely that China would go from rapid emissions growth to immediate emissions cuts without passing through several intermediate phases. I envision that China would need three transitional periods of increasing climate obligations before taking on absolute emissions caps:

1. Further credible energy-conservation commitments starting in 2013

China has already committed itself to quantified targets on energy conservation and the use of clean energy, but it needs to make further credible commitments in these areas. Such commitments could include expanded energy-saving and pollutant-control goals; increased investment in energy efficiency; and significant increases in the use of low-carbon technologies, in particular wind and nuclear power.

2. Voluntary “no lose” emission targets starting in 2018

During this transition period, China could commit to adopting voluntary emission reduction targets. Emissions reductions achieved beyond these “no lose” targets would then be eligible for sale through carbon trading mechanisms, meaning that China would suffer no net economic loss by adhering to the targets.

3. Binding carbon intensity targets starting in 2023, leading to emissions caps around 2030

While China is expected to adopt the carbon intensity target as a domestic commitment in 2011, China adopting binding carbon intensity targets in 2023 as its international commitment would be a significant step towards committing to absolute caps during the subsequent commitment period. Having been granted three transition periods, China could then be expected to take on binding emissions caps starting around 2030.

While it would be desirable for China to commit to stringent caps, the most critical thing is to have a commitment to some kind of quantified emissions cuts. In my view, there is no need to worry too much now about the specific levels of the caps, given that actions to honor the interim targets during the transition periods would have driven China’s emissions substantially below their business-as-usual levels.

These commitments are principles, and still leave flexibility for China to work out details as international climate change negotiations move onward. But in the meantime, they would signal well ahead that China is seriously committed to addressing climate change issues, which in turn would help the U.S. to take on long-expected emissions commitments of its own, and thus pave the way for reaching an international climate agreement at Copenhagen and beyond.

ZhongXiang Zhang is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii. Dr. Zhang can be reached at [email protected] or (808) 944-7265. This analysis is drawn from the recent East-West Dialogue publication "Climate Commitments to 2050: A Roadmap for China."

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