China's climate plan: how ambitious and what does it mean for Australia?
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China's climate plan: how ambitious and what does it mean for Australia?

After a few false dawns China has submitted its plans for tackling climate change from 2020 to the United Nations climate negotiations.

It is a much anticipated moment.

China releases more greenhouse gas emissions than any other country, and by a long way. Observers are looking for positive signs from the Middle Kingdom that it will get on top of its planet warming pollution.

So what is China saying it will do?

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The main things China is promising by 2030 are:

China has announced to the UN its plans to tackle carbon dioxide emissions from 2020

China has announced to the UN its plans to tackle carbon dioxide emissions from 2020Credit:Reuters

  • A peak to its emissions, but with an aim to do it sooner.
  • An increase of the share of non-fossil fuel energy in primary energy consumption to about 20 per cent.
  • A cut to carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65 per cent from 2005 levels.
  • An increase in its forest volume by around 4.5 billion cubic metres on 2005 levels.

The emissions peak is the centrepiece. China initially committed to the 2030 peak in a historic announcement with the US last November, but has since hardened the language around getting there sooner.

The target per unit of GDP is new. And the plan also contains numerous and detailed measures China says it will pursue to meet the targets, such as boosting green buildings, more efficient transport and implementing a national emissions trading scheme.

These commitments are part of the Chinese INDC that was submitted to the United Nations on Tuesday.

Arrgh acronyms! What is an INDC?

Unfortunately the UN climate negotiations are riddled with impenetrable acronyms like LULUCF and REDD+.

China releases more greenhouse gas emissions than any other country.

China releases more greenhouse gas emissions than any other country. Credit:AFP

Let's leave those side and focus on INDC, which stands for intended nationally determined contributions.

These are the plans to tackle climate change that nations are pledging to put in place from 2020. They will feed into a new global climate deal that is hoped to be signed at a summit in Paris later this year.

The Xinwu Coal Mine in Shanxi Province, China.

The Xinwu Coal Mine in Shanxi Province, China. Credit:Qilai Shen

Australia will submit in mid-July.

Why is China so important?

The magnitude of China's emissions and coal consumption - and the speed of the rise of both - is mind-boggling.

China is now responsible for almost a quarter of all global emissions. In 2012 it released almost 11 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, almost double the US. Its coal consumption grew by 10 per cent a year for much of the last decade.

China alone can't solve the global warming problem. But it can cruel the chances of keeping it within relatively safe bounds.

So is China's plan ambitious?

There are signs China is getting on top of the problem. Almost $US90 billion was invested in Chinese renewable energy last year. And recent data has suggested Chinese coal consumption is now falling (down 2.9 per cent in 2014).

Chinese officials have also sought to highlight the size of the task by declaring that meeting their emissions targets will cost $US6.6 trillion.

But many say they can go faster.

A recent report by the Grantham Institute found China will most likely peak their emissions in 2025. While former Australia government climate adviser, Professor Ross Garnaut, has said the emissions peak is possible as early as 2020.

Dr Frank Jotzo from the Australia National University says there is hardly precedent for the rate of decarbonisation that China has proposed. But more important than the precise timing of the emissions peak, he says, is what levels they hit when they get there. That will depend on future Chinese economic growth.

"There is every chance that the trajectory to the peak will not be steep, but a gradual tailing off, with the peak the highest point on a plateau: an emissions profile more like Mount Kosciuszko than Mount Everest," he says.

"That could mean the peak will be at levels not drastically higher than today."

To be parochial, what does this all mean for Australia?

The slowing of Chinese coal demand has been credited with suppressing global prices, which in turn has squeezed Australian coal producers. The UN submission is a sign China will go further, meaning our coal export industry has to hope other countries, such as India, replace the demand. That's no sure thing.

There is also the question of reputation for Australia.

As Fairfax Media detailed over the weekend, the international community is playing close attention to Australian climate policy. That includes China, who is asking tricky questions about the ambition of our current emissions reduction targets for 2020.

China's contribution builds more momentum towards Paris. Australia is still considering its post-2020 emissions reduction target in that light, and will need to produce a target seen as credible amid what is already on the table to avoid international backlash.

The Climate Institute on Wednesday morning said to match China's emissions intensity target, Australia would have to pledge to cut its own emissions 35-45 per cent below 2005 levels in 2030.

But the early signs are the Abbott government is not considering a post-2020 target that high.

Tom Arup is the environment editor for The Age.

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