A haze descends: a woman wears a mask to endure the smog in Heilongjiang province. Photo: Reuters
China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas, should set a limit on its emissions, one of its leading climate change advisers says, a move that would be a significant boost to the slow-moving international efforts to draw up a global treaty on climate change.
Reuters reported on Tuesday that the deputy director of China's National Expert Committee on Climate Change, He Jiankun, told a conference in Beijing that an absolute cap on emissions would be included in China’s next five-year plan starting in 2016.
"The government will use two ways to control CO2 emissions in the next five-year plan, by intensity and an absolute cap,’’ Professor He was reported to have said.
The story created headlines around the world, with the statement coming hot on the heels of US President Barack Obama's announcement of the most significant American measure to cut emissions to date - a reduction of greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants of 30 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.
But later, Reuters quoted Professor He as saying a decision had not been taken by the Chinese government to pursue an absolute cap, and it was his personal view.
"The opinions expressed at the workshop were only meant for academic studies," he said. "What I said does not represent the Chinese government or any organisation.''
The New York Times also reported Professor He as saying: ''This is a suggestion from experts, because now they are exploring how emissions can be controlled in the 13th Five-Year Plan . . . This is a view of experts; that’s not saying it’s the government’s. I’m not a government official and I don’t represent the government."
China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. On recent data, China’s annual emissions are now almost double those of the next largest polluter, the United States, having soared 50 per cent since 2005.
While under Professor He's proposal the absolute cap would start in two years, he was reported as saying that China’s emissions would not peak until 2030 at about 11 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – up from the 9.8 billion tonnes recorded in 2012.
Until now China’s emissions targets have been expressed as a reduction of the carbon intensity of its economy - in effect allowing emissions to continue to grow, but at a slower rate. An absolute cap on emissions in China has long been rumoured as the country tries to get on top of its greenhouse gas problem.
Australian National University climate economist Frank Jotzo attended the conference in Beijing where the remarks were made. He said without hard details on what the cap would look like, its value at this point was largely symbolic, as China was now apparently prepared to take on a type of target it had previously insisted was only for developed countries.
Dr Jotzo said the comments about an absolute cap and national emissions trading fit with the kinds of discussions being had by officials in Beijing on climate and resources, such as whether China's growth in coal consumption could peak before 2020.
Dr Jotzo added it was clear there were talks behind the scenes between the United States and China on climate, a big difference when compared to the last time the world tried to sign a new global climate treaty at the troubled Copenhagen negotiations in 2009.
Focus will now turn to Bonn in Germany, where negotiators from over 190 nations began meeting on Wednesday for the latest 10-day round of talks in a process meant to lead to a new global climate treaty in Paris in December 2015.
"Interesting hint from Beijing, although the key point will be where [the cap] is set. If ambitious and announced well in advance of Paris, it could be a game changer," said a spokesman for European Union climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard.
Negotiations for a new climate treaty - due to be finalised at the end of next year and to take effect from 2020 - have been bogged down for years amid bickering between developed and developing countries over who should shoulder much of the responsibility for getting global warming under control.
China is currently experimenting with emissions trading, having launched schemes in six cities and provinces, with a further one to begin later this year.
At the same Beijing conference a senior official form China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission, Sun Cuihua, was reported as saying a national emissions trading scheme could be introduced in 2016 or 2017, but would only be fully functional in 2020.