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China and EU share climate vision

Richard Black | 14:57 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

China and the European Union are setting out plans for changing energy use and curbing carbon emissions within a space of a few days.

As one of them is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases while the other would be third in the global list if its emissions were tallied as a single entity, what they come up with is obviously of some importance in shaping the world of the future.

National Party Congress in Beijing


The contexts of the two announcements are somewhat different.

In Beijing on Saturday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao unveiled his report to the National People's Congress, the Chinese parliament.

In part he assessed progress on various measures over the last five years, and in part he outlined targets and aspirations for the five years ahead.

(Time has posted English translations of the various documents that are downloadable and searchable.)

Regarding energy and climate, one target is to generate 11.4% of energy from renewable sources by 2015 - up from 8% in 2010.

Energy will be used more efficiently - about 16% more efficiently, on the same timescale.

But by targeting economic growth just slightly lower than it's seen over the last decade, the Five-Year Plan also guarantees that energy use overall will still rise.

The size of the targets probably shouldn't come as a surprise given that back in 2009, before the Copenhagen climate summit, China vowed to improve carbon intensity by 40-45% between 2005 and 2020, and to produce 15% of energy renewably by 2020.

High-wire walker and power station chimneys

European energy and climate policy is proving a difficult balancing act

The Five-Year Plan targets are logical steps on the road.

Back in Europe, the European Commission will on Tuesday unveil its energy and climate "roadmap" to 2050.

This doesn't carry the weight of formal policy, because everything has to be signed off by member states.

But because member states engage actively in lobbying and pressurising during the process of drawing up documents such as the roadmap, you can be fairly sure that what emerges won't be a million miles away from where nations will eventually converge.

As I outlined on Friday, the commission is set to stick explicitly to its existing target of a 20% cut in emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 - ignoring lobbying from green groups who cite scientific studies to argue that after the recession, going for 20% is less ambitious than "business as usual".

To them, the debate should be between 30% and 40%.

There's clearly been a row going on behind the scenes between Connie Hedegaard's Climate Directorate and its Energy counterpart headed by Gunther Oettinger; and as of Friday, Mr Oettinger appeared to have emerged victorious.

Nevertheless, there is at least a sense of the EU moving forward here - like China, driven partly by concern over climate change, partly by growing awareness of the insecurity of depending on fossil fuels, and partly by studies suggesting that a "green energy revolution" is positive for jobs and employment.

In terms of what it means internationally, there's an intriguing phrase in the draft commission report leaked a couple of weeks ago:

"Quite a number of the EU's key partners from around the world, like China, Brazil and Korea, are addressing these issues..."

Given that the country traditionally closest to the EU on things political is the US, its absence from the list is telling in a couple of different ways.

Firstly, it's another indicator that the US is not really moving forwards anything like as quickly as China and the EU on green energy and climate issues.

As Time's Bryan Walsh put it:

"At least they have a plan.

"What do we have in the US? On Wednesday, Republican Representative Michele Bachmann reintroduced her Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act."

This seeks to repeal the 2007 Congress decision (made under the presidency of George W Bush) that from next year, only energy-efficient lightbulbs could be sold in the US.

Aeroplane nose

The shortage of alternative fuels for aviation means curbs will probably end up being tougher elsewhere

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the US direction of travel on climate and energy is putting it out of kilter with most other countries in the world.

Whether that matters for the US - and whether its basic premise is correct - are questions on which you'll have different views.

But it certainly has implications.

For example; if the Senate had passed climate legislation that included a cap-and-trade system, there's every prospect that the talk now would be of how carbon trading in the US could link up with the European carbon market.

That prospect is apparently dead; and the most likely link-ups, that are even now being explored, involve Japan and China.

The second way in which the "partners... like China, Brazil and Korea" phrase becomes important is over international moves to curb carbon emissions, and the notion - raised in that previous post of mine - that the rest of the world might not be as willing to wait for the US as it was in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit.

Partnerships come in many guises; and there is a school of thought that says only now are European politicians understanding how to work with China, which is culturally so much more distant than North America.

China's political process means that policies are largely decided centrally, at five-year intervals, after long discussions with interested parties inside the country.

So perhaps there's no point in coming to an event such as the Copenhagen summit and expecting to negotiate on emission curbs, given that they tie so closely into economic policy.

Perhaps instead the logical path should be to take the pledges that China makes (and other countries too) - and, accepting that they amount to targets that the government is totally serious about meeting, regard them as being equal to the internationally-binding targets that have been the traditional stock-in-trade of the UN climate process.

We're due to see a more detailed and nuanced discussion of this idea emerge in a few weeks' time, so I'll leave it at that for now.

In the meantime, we'll report on the European Commission's final document when it emerges on Tuesday afternoon, and wait to see what else emerges from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

What sort of lightbulbs are in use there one can only guess...



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