BEIJING — China on Monday reaffirmed its commitment to fight climate change but delivered a new pledge that scientists were skeptical would cut emissions as much as the country said it would.
The government said it would scale back its planned 2030 reduction in its carbon intensity, a measure of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of economic growth, from 32 percent to 28 percent. Those reductions are significantly less than the 39 percent figure that the People’s Republic had pledged as part of a deal the world saw in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, shortly before that year’s U.N. climate conference.
“China is a developing country,” Liu Zhenmin, the country’s minister of energy, told the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany. “Countries like China with huge progress in economic development and highly populated states with crowded cities cannot keep pace with the urgent action needed to make no new [emissions] at all in 2030.”
China had responded to criticism last week of its decision to increase its planned 2030 emissions by 45 percent — instead of the 30 percent cut it had agreed to in Copenhagen — by saying it wanted to show its sincerity. On Monday, the country said it was still trying to figure out “which direction to move” between the two versions.
“It’s disappointing, at best,” said Wang Xianfa, deputy director of the environmental studies department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. “All that they are saying is that the economy has to slow down more than initially planned, the environment has to be protected and the GDP has to grow with a slower pace than what has been planned.”
In fact, China is not likely to reach its 30 percent goal. The 31.4 percent figure that Beijing recently floated was the result of an adjustment to the government’s plan for an economic restructuring and rebalancing over the next several years that would slash economic growth to allow for population migration to the urban areas, streamline government management of the economy and enable the real-estate market to operate more freely.
That economic restructuring will not be done by the deadline that President Xi Jinping promised the heads of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change last year, not least because of the government’s huge debts.
But the hope is that a slowing economy will also lead to a new era of public and corporate support for environmental protection.
The news that China is actually slowing down emissions growth was greeted with cautious optimism.
“They are actually making progress. If they didn’t, why would they say it?” said Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program. “They are not arguing that emissions are rising fast enough.”
The apparent squeeze on economic growth is consistent with the approach China is taking to the climate talks. The government’s informal trade-off has been what is officially called a “carbon budget” as countries try to provide low-cost greenhouse gases abatement. The government wants an agreement, ideally negotiated in Paris next year, that will limit global temperatures rise to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Because of China’s spectacular growth and because of the scale of its emission growth, it could have the most to lose from rapid rise of global temperatures.
China’s new target is also consistent with what other nations have put on the table as a starting point in a global climate agreement. About half of the commitments are for emissions reductions that happen by 2030, while the rest are for reductions after that date. China was looking to get credit for this latter list in exchange for letting other countries say that they were leading the way in tackling global warming.
Developing countries also have said the United States and other industrial countries have needlessly overstated their carbon dioxide emissions in their pledges, which are supposed to be cut by 30 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels.
“We are reaching the limit of our resource,” Zhenmin said. “Given the level of China’s emissions growth, China alone is not able to close the emissions gap by itself.”
Zhenmin said the government is prepared to commit to “medium-term cuts” by lowering its target for emissions intensity from 32 percent to 28 percent. But it is unclear whether China could reduce its emissions further than 28 percent, given its slowing economic growth.