The claim that the Copenhagen climate change conference was not a total failure, which still enjoys currency in public debate about the Cancun conference, usually makes approving reference to the notifications which most countries made to the Copenhagen Accord. But the Accord enjoys no legal status and the notifications of the developing countries typically make it perfectly clear that, in the words of the Chinese notification, any “mitigation actions are voluntary in nature and will be implemented in accordance with the principles and provisions of the UN [Framework Convention on Climate Change], in particular Article 4, paragraph 7.” In an earlier blog post I showed that Article 4, paragraph 7 gives an explicit legal permission to developing countries to increase emissions, and that the Kyoto Protocol confirms this permission. Focusing on the Chinese notification, I now want to show that the developing country notifications are statements of intent to take advantage of that permission and to enormously increase, not decrease, absolute levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
The most important of the Chinese voluntary mitigation actions is that “China will endeavour to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020 compared to the 2005 level.” This is an endeavour to reduce “carbon intensity”, the amount of CO2 (or equivalent greenhouse gas) which it is necessary to emit in order to increase gross domestic product by a defined amount. It is not an endeavour to reduce absolute emissions, and, indeed, for China to reduce carbon intensity in the way stated will require it to enormously increase its absolute emissions.
China’s current carbon intensity is high relative to the developed countries, generally reflecting the largely lower level of its technological development and specifically reflecting its heavy reliance on coal-fired power generation, much of it using older methods. This high carbon intensity installed plant represents, of course, an extremely important capital investment, and this plant cannot be retired other than very gradually, for this investment cannot just be thrown away. To lower carbon intensity in the extremely ambitious way stated will require the installation of a very great amount of new, lower carbon intensity plant. Adding the new, lower intensity emissions to the existing, high intensity emissions will lower the carbon intensity of the economy as a whole. But this requires an enormous growth in absolute emissions so that the average intensity of emissions can be lowered.
And this is exactly what China intends to do. Its economic growth targets are immense and they will involve an enormous growth of absolute emissions, albeit at a decreasing rate of intensity. The lower intensity can only follow from higher absolute emissions. The Chinese statement of endeavour, therefore, is not merely a statement that it will not be legally bound to reduce emissions, though it is this. It actually is a statement that China will increase its absolute emissions, and such is the size of Chinese economic growth, this increase will itself completely undermine any of the stated targets for global emissions reduction.