Chinese experts discuss absolute emissions limits in Durban

The idea of a total cap on energy consumption in China, first suggested last March before the National People’s Congress has reemerged in Durban, and surprisingly there are now suggestions that China might consider some kind of a cap on carbon emissions. This has been suggested apparently as part of domestic policy rather than as a negotiating position, but details are very sketchy.

Over the last week, we have been witnessing an active debate amongst Chinese academics and researchers on energy and carbon caps, although these discussions have taken place separately, from outside the plenary floor and in the multitude of side events the Chinese delegation has been hosting. Chinese negotiators have been careful to not muddy the waters in Durban, especially after making such a loud splash late the first week of negotiations by supporting a legally-binding treaty after 2020. Read more.

What senior government researchers have been suggesting, however, is that China is considering an absolute rather than an intensity-based emissions target that is more restrictive after 2020. Statements by senior researchers from the Energy Research Institute - a high-level government think tank associated with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) - are the first time that China has suggested they might soon be ready to set a timetable and limit for its emissions, at least in the context of domestic policy.

This idea first emerged prior to the March release of the Five-Year Plan. Senior representatives of the Chinese government suggested that an energy consumption cap of 4.1 billion tons coal equivalent might be included in the Plan. Since then we understand the question of a total energy cap has been hotly debated within the Chinese government. Now its advocates are speaking fairly forcefully in Durban and going beyond the energy cap to suggest a carbon cap as well.

At a side event on local pilot carbon trading schemes on Dec. 1 organized by Tsinghua University and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, the debate of absolute versus intensity emissions targets was prominently mentioned. Tsinghua University professor Teng Fei emphasized that whether these preliminary carbon-trading schemes will cap emissions on an absolute or an intensity basis is the biggest issue for government leaders in deciding how to roll out these programs to the four cities and two provinces selected as pilots. Lead Chinese negotiator Su Wei was also present and added, “It’s very clear in China’s Five-Year Plan that it’s our objective to gradually establish a national system on carbon emissions trading. Certainly the pilot system is still in the design stage but we have more or less set the direction of piloting market mechanisms.” It certainly could be the case that experience with regards to the design of caps (i.e. sectoral or provincial basis; baseline calculations, etc.) in these local pilot projects may eventually inform a national level cap on emissions.

One reason for a possible shift to an absolute target is because an emissions cap may spur growth in alternative energy sectors – such as natural gas, renewables and nuclear – according to Yang Fuqiang, Senior Advisor on Energy, Environment, and Climate Change for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

While Chinese experts and delegates have not suggested what kind of carbon number they are considering, Jiang Kejun of NDRC’s Energy Research Institute noted, “If you add up the coal consumption cap, the target for non-fossil energy consumption, and the natural gas target, you can basically calculate what an emissions limit for China might be.”

At this point this discussion mainly concerns domestic policy, but its active airing in Durban suggests the scope for Chinese policy development in the next several years.

Angel Hsu is a Phd candidate at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a contributing expert to; Max Song is a MEM student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; and Jonathan Smith is a JD/MEM candidate at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. They are all attending COP-17 in Durban.

Image courtesy of Angel Hsu.