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China hints at new climate future

Richard Black | 14:34 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010

At a recent meeting in Tianjin, there's been intriguing discussion about where the host country, China, is going on climate change.

Factory with chimney

And where it's going is, it seems, towards national legislation to restrict the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

This national law is likely to emerge as part of the next five-year plan.

Details are scheduled to be announced in a few months' time.

The sneak preview of forthcoming legislation emerged at a meeting of the National People's Congress of China and GLOBE Legislators' Forum (GLOBE being the organisation Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment).

Other sources confirm the new law is more than just a subject of conversation within the Chinese political elite - it is a firm plan.

Precisely what'll be in it isn't clear, but I gather it's likely to include firm, legally-binding targets for improving carbon intensity - thus putting a brake on rising emissions.

One possibility is that it will set in stone the pledge made by China to the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) [156Kb PDF] under the Copenhagen Accord:

"China will endeavour to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45%
by 2020 compared to the 2005 level..."

...turning the word "endeavour" into something a bit more mandatory.

Another is that it will increase the scale of that pledge, which according to some analyses doesn't go much beyond historical rates of improvement.

Sources suggest the government has three roles in mind for the legislation:

 • further stimulating the domestic clean energy industry;
 • curbing emissions, in response to concerns over climate impacts on China;
 • providing a legal mechanism under which authorities can force recalcitrant businesses and regions to comply with national goals.

What it will also do, however, is cast in even greater contrast the US's failure to pass legislation.

A lot has been written about the results of the mid-term elections, which increased the proportion of people opposed to climate action in the US Congress.

Even before then, the prospects of legislation were fading away. As the Washington Post puts it:

"Cap-and-trade was dead. Now it will be deader."
Hu Jintao and Barack Obama

Is President Hu overtaking his US counterpart in delivering climate legislation?

Now, President Obama is apparently pinning his hopes on the regulators - particularly the Environmental Protection Agency, which is being asked to set new rules for emissions from various sectors of the economy.

However, apart from the obstacles this may face in the form of legal action, there's no certainty that it can deliver the 17% cuts by 2020 (from 2005 levels) that the administration says it wants.

The same Washington Post article makes the case that it can't.

But the key role of legislation was already signalled in the language of the US pledge to the UNFCCC [pdf link]:

"In the range of 17%, in conformity with anticipated US energy and climate legislation, recognising that the final target will be reported to the [UNFCCC] Secretariat in light of enacted legislation."

So given that legislation is now deader than dead... what is the US target? Does it in fact have one?

The signs are that few delegations to the UN climate summit in Mexico want to see a big fight when it opens for business next Monday.

But the fact that the US position has materially altered since Copenhagen - from 17%, to an undetermined figure that is certainly less than 17% - is likely to be aired regularly.

The Copenhagen plan suffered from several issues, one of them being timing - in particular, coming just before China began drafting its five-year plan, the over-arching framework for policies across government.

But now, the scene is set for China - if it so chooses, and if draft legislation is mature enough - to stage something of a diplomatic coup in Cancun by detailing what its new law will cover, how far it will constrain emissions and how it will ensure compliance - all details that the US is unable to provide about its own emissions future.

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