China – still dodging on climate

by | Feb 3, 2009

In an interview with the FT yesterday, Wen Jiabao sets out China’s negotiating position in the run up to the Copenhagen climate negotiation. Three main points:

  • Green stimulus as part of the response to the financial meltdown.
  • Domestic action to increase energy intensity by 4% a year (“We failed to meet the targets in the first two years of the five year period, and we succeeded in meeting the target in 2008.”)
  • No quantified emissions targets for China – the country is still at an early stage of development and “in terms of per capita greenhouse gas emissions, we are certainly not the biggest one.”

How strong is China’s position? Not very, I think. China is obviously right to expect the rich world to do more, but if they accept tough targets and China refuses to, then there are two consequences. 450ppm stabilization becomes impossible – and it’s the rest of the G77 that will end up with a highly inequitable deal.

Recent IEA figures back this up – though they’re for CO2 alone.

  • In 2006, energy related CO2 emissions were 18.6 tonnes per capita in the US; 8 tonnes in the EU; 4.3 tonnes in China (equal to the global average), and 1.1 tonne in India.
  • By 2020, given business as usual, US per capita emissions would have fallen to 16.8 tonnes per person, while the figure for Europe would be almost unchanged. Chinese emissions would have climbed to 7 tonnes per person and would be on track to exceed Europe’s by 2030. India’s emissions would still be just 1.6 tonnes per capita.
  • Under this scenario, China’s total CO2 emissions would be more than 75% higher than they were in 2006.

This would take 450ppm stabilization off the table and make 550 ppm very hard to achieve as well. The IEA comments:

It is simply not possible to lower concentration to 450 ppm CO2-eq without the participation of non-OECD countries. In 2030, non-OECD emissions in the Reference Scenario [e.g. business as usual] exceed global emissions in the 450 Policy Scenario.

In other words, if non-OECD countries do not reduce their emissions relative to the Reference Scenario, a 450 ppm trajectory could not be achieved, even if OECD countries reduce their emissions to zero.


  • In 2009, China’s CO2 emissions are now well past the global average on a per capita basis.
  • Wen is of course right, that China is not the biggest emitter in per capita terms – but so what? Average levels are a much better guide of where cuts should fall.
  • Quantified targets against business as usual have to be part of China’s Copenhagen deal.
  • China’s emissions will need to peak by 2020 at the latest and then go into a relatively steep decline.

Of course, Wen could make one very powerful defence – that only around half of China’s emissions growth is caused by domestic consumption, with the rest for export to rich countries.

While a focus on consumption, rather than production, targets could make some sense for the Chinese – it’s hard to square that with a country that is so committed to export-led growth. 


    • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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