China outlines climate change plan, countries boost UN deal efforts

2 July 2015

The Chinese government on Tuesday submitted its national climate action plan to a UN process geared towards slashing climate-warming emissions and tackling the global challenges presented by climate change.

The day was also marked by a cascade of climate pledges from other nations as the first half of the year drew to a close and the international community ramps up focus on a December deadline for negotiating a new, universal climate regime.

South Korea, Serbia, and Iceland also put forward their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs), as the climate plans are known in UN speak.

These are set to be the building blocs of the multilateral agreement and 16 parties – including the 28 nations of the EU as one – have now submitted plans covering 54.7 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The US, Canada, Mexico, and Gabon are also among those that have submitted, while other big emitters such as India, Japan, and Australia have yet to come forward. 

The December deal will call on all nations to undertake mitigation efforts under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in contrast to the current Kyoto Protocol, and come into effect at the end of the decade.

Brazil, US cooperation on climate

Following a bilateral meeting also held on Tuesday, the US and Brazil released a joint statement committing to intensify collaboration on climate change, and outlined several climate action pledges. 

Both nations agreed to obtain up to 20 percent of electricity power from renewables by 2030 and said they would work multilaterally to phase down harmful climate pollutants known as hydrofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol. Brazil committed to restoring up to 12 million hectares of forest – and area equivalent the size of UK’s England or the US’ Pennsylvania – in a bid to help cut emissions from deforestation.

Washington and Brazilia also pledged to strengthening cooperation on clean energy, including by boosting research on energy supply from renewable energy resources and piloting new finance instruments to mobilise investments in clean energy, among other efforts.

“This is a big deal,” said Brian Deese, senior adviser to US President Barack Obama. “It reflects the commitment that both countries have to driving renewables at the centre of a clean energy economy transformation.”

China’s plan

In Tuesday’s INDC, responsible for nearly a quarter of global emissions, China said that it would achieve a peaking of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by around 2030 if not sooner; aim to lower emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the energy mix to 20 percent by 2030, up from 15 percent in 2020.

Two of these pledges had been signalled in a landmark joint US-China announcement last November geared towards boosting international cooperation on the climate front between the two economic giants. (See BioRes, 13 November 2014)

China on Tuesday indicated it would increase its forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic metres on 2005 levels by 2030. Forests function as important “carbon sinks” by absorbing CO2 emissions.

The Asian giant said it would proactively adapt to climate change in key areas such as agriculture, forestry and water resources, as well as in cities, coastal and ecologically vulnerable areas, and strengthen early warning and emergency response systems. The INDC includes a section with its position on the shape of the Paris deal.

“A one-thousand-mile journey starts from the first step,” read the at-times poetic Chinese climate plan, which also included a detailed list of policies and measures Beijing is undertaking and will pursue to tackle climate change. 

These cover areas such as building a low carbon energy and industrial system, controlling emissions from building and transportation sectors, increasing carbon sinks, innovating low-carbon development growth patterns, and promoting a carbon emissions trading market to help effectively achieve emissions reductions.

China is in the process of setting up a nation-wide emissions trade scheme, building on seven regional pilot programmes already in place, by 2016. The carbon market would overtake the EU’s as the world’s largest. Beijing has indicated that the scheme could cover six industrial sectors including power generation, metal and nonferrous metal related production, building materials, chemicals, and aviation. (See BioRes, 16 February 2015)

The nation has also sought to significantly boost its renewable energy generation capacity, responsible for nearly half of the additional renewable power generated globally over the last decade. In the same period China accounted for the highest percentage of global patent filings in biofuels, solar thermal, and solar PV technologies. 

Stakeholders react

A number of stakeholders and environmental groups welcomed China’s multilateral submission. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the move was an “excellent sign” for the Paris-based UN December meet.

A chorus of experts suggested that the international politics leading up to the landmark event were markedly different from the last attempt to secure a global climate deal in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009.

“The United States and China can no longer use inaction by the other as an excuse for ignoring the risks we all face from climate change. Both countries are acting,” said Bob Perciasepe, president of the US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions think-tank.

Several analysts, however, noted that China’s INDC did not specify at what level its emissions would peak. On the other hand, some experts said the nation may be able to peak before 2030, perhaps as early as 2025 according to one ambitious estimate. 

“Today’s pledge must be seen only as the starting point for much more ambitious actions. It does not fully reflect the significant energy transition that is already taking place in China,” Li Shuo, an analyst with Greenpeace China, told reporters.

Meanwhile, climate reporters at the Carbon Brief cautioned that the INDC lacked specifics on other potent GHG emissions, although a brief mention is made of efforts to enhance the capture of methane from oil and gas fields and controlling its release from rice paddies.

China’s contribution came one day after a China-EU investment summit, where the two players released a joint statement on climate change, pledging to reach an ambitious and legally binding deal in Paris.

The joint statement also agreed to further enhance existing bilateral cooperation on carbon markets and promote dialogue around domestic mitigation measures in aviation and maritime sectors, among others.

Additional new pledges

South Korea’s INDC also received a warm reception, with a number of commentators noting the upscale in ambition in the final submission, compared with early indications.

South Korea will cut GHG emissions by 37 percent from business as usual levels by 2030, compared with a touted draft of a 14-31 percent reduction. Seoul said it intended to use carbon credits from international market mechanisms to achieve its pledge.

An adaptation component is included referencing climate-proof infrastructure, disaster prevention, and developing a climate-resilient ecosystem.

Key sectors covered include energy, industrial processes and product use, agriculture and waste, while a decision on incorporating emissions from land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) will be made at a later date.

A number of Korean industry groups reportedly expressed dismay over the target, however, arguing the government had failed to properly consider the economic burden and competitiveness issues.

Serbia’s INDC envisaged a 9.8 percent reduction by 2030 from 1990 levels. Iceland leaned towards the EU aiming to be part of a collective delivery by the bloc to cut GHG emissions by 40 percent by 2030 from a 1990 baseline. Iceland said it would include LULUCF activities in its contribution and would take part in the EU’s carbon market after 2020.

Five months to go

Participants at a high-level event held at UN headquarters in New York at the start of the week said that the climate talks and global governance agenda were at a critical juncture.

“Never before has it been so evident that we can address both climate change and sustainable development with the same measures,” UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christian Figueres told those gathered for the event.

“This is your moment to ensure we create jobs, ensure energy access, safeguard food and water, improve health and protect economic and social stability in the future,” she continued.

While praising efforts made so far, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cautioned that the UNFCCC talks were moving far too slowly. “With only ten negotiating days remaining before Paris, governments must accelerate their efforts,” the UN chief said.

A number of nations and analysts have said that securing a deal on climate finance will be an essential enabler for a successful Paris outcome.

Last Sunday, the so-called BASIC group of countries – India, China, Brazil, and South Africa – released a 21 point statement on the Paris deal and urged developed countries to honour a commitment to scale up climate support to US$100 billion per year by 2020.

In one interesting evolution, however, China’s INDC said it would establish a fund for south-south cooperation on climate change, providing climate assistance and support where possible to other nations such as small island developing countries, least developed countries, and African nations. According to some experts, the move could reflect shifting geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics that serve as a critical backdrop to the climate talks.

A UNFCCC session in Bonn, Germany in June reportedly yielded some positive trust building between countries, despite negotiators getting bogged down in a 90-page long negotiating text containing a maze of proposals on arrangements for the new agreement.  (See BioRes, 15 June 2015)

Governments and stakeholders alike are eagerly awaiting the release later this month of a revised suggested text for the new climate deal from the co-chairs of the multilateral talks.

Many experts are hoping that a more concise document will help parties to better navigate the complex issues and trade offs required to secure a meaningful and workable climate architecture for decades ahead. 

ICTSD reporting; “Greenhouse gas pledges bolster hopes for global deal,” THE FINANCIAL TIMES, 30 June 2015; “Brazil announces massive reforestation and renewable energy plan with US,” THE GUARDIAN, 30 June 2015; “China to cap rising emissions by 2030 in boost to Paris UN deal,” REUTERS, 30 June 2015; “India, China, Brazil & South Africa issue UN climate deal checklist,” RTCC, 30 June 2015. 

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