Domestic Emissions Targets for Greenhouse Gases and China

This week, we begin to address the politics of climate change. In the chapter from the Stevenson text, the author addresses the rise of two international norms that are related to mitigating the impact of global warming: 1) common but differentiated responsibilities (CBRD) and, 2) mitigation in the form of domestic emissions’ targets.

Stevenson argues that international negotiations regarding mitigation have slowly transitioned from a focus on domestic to global emissions’ targets. Correspondingly, the institutional framework for implementing these goals has moved from regulatory (domestic governments) to market-oriented.  China and the United States have been the main promoters (and would also be the main beneficiaries of ) the market-oriented approach to GHG mitigation. We’ll discuss why during this week’s seminar, but in short, high level emitters can use carbon trading schemes to offload their emissions to low-emitting countries, resulting in no drop in emissions of GHGs globally.

In an interesting story on China’s setting up of a domestic carbon market, which is set to begin trading in 2016, we find something interesting. First, here’s a description of the proposed Chines carbon market:

China plans to roll out its national market for carbon permit trading in 2016, an official said Sunday, adding that the government is close to finalising rules for what will be the world’s biggest emissions trading scheme.

The world’s biggest-emitting nation, accounting for nearly 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, plans to use the market to slow its rapid growth in climate-changing emissions.

What caught my eye, however, was the next line:

China has pledged to reduce the amount of carbon it emits per unit of GDP to 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

In an informal (convenience sample) survey of some friends and acquaintances, it is obvious that the impression (almost unanimously shared) of the reader was that China would be cutting its GHG emissions dramatically by 2020. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The key words in the excerpt quoted above are “per unit of GDP.” Because China’s GDP is expected to at least double by 2020 (based on the base year 2005), China could conceivably meet their target of a 40-45-per cent cut in emissions per unit of GDP even with as much as a doubling of actual (absolute) GHG emissions!