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Congressional Research Service, "China’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Mitigation Policies," July 18, 2011

Jane Leggett, a specialist on Energy and Environmental Policy, wrote this report.
July 18, 2011

The 112th Congress continues to debate whether and how the United States should address climate change. Most often, this debate includes concerns about the effects of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions controls if China and other major countries were not to take comparable actions. China recently surpassed the United States to become the largest emitter of human related GHG globally, and together, the two nations emit about 40% of the global total (with
shares of 21% and 19% respectively).

China’s GHG emissions are growing rapidly and, even with policies adopted by China, are expected to rise until at least 2030. The emissions growth is driven by China’s rapid economic and industrial growth and its reliance on fossil fuels despite measures to raise the shares of nonfossil energy sources. China requires 50% more energy to produce one billion dollars of GDP (its “energy intensity”) compared with the United States. Over the past two decades, strong
government directives and investments have dramatically reduced the energy and GHG intensities of China’s economy, though the rates of improvement leveled off in the 2000s, and even reversed in subsequent years. A renewed emphasis on improving energy and GHG intensity emerged in the 11th 5-Year Plan, from 2006-2010, and the government says the nation nearly achieved its aggressive goal to reduce by 20% the energy required to produce GDP. In the context of China’s 12th 5-Year Plan, from 2011-2015, leaders have set targets to further reduce energy intensity by 16% by 2015. Along with measures to reduce pollution and increase the shares of non-fossil fuels in the energy sector, China has set goals to improve its CO2 intensity by 40-45% by 2020, with an interim target in the 12th 5-Year Plan of 17% by 2015. Even if these targets are achieved, China’s GHG emissions are expected to rise in absolute terms. In addition, the frequency, transparency, and data quality of China’s reporting of its GHG emissions and mitigation actions (including underlying energy and other data) have been a challenging diplomatic issue between the United States and China and in the climate change negotiations. China has resisted reporting and reviews comparable to what other industrialized nations or what many developing countries accept. While technical bilateral cooperation on data has been productive and China has moved politically toward better information sharing, the continuing lack of transparency is apparent in uncertain emissions estimates and projections.

Chinese negotiators adhere to the principle of “common but differentiated” responsibilities, agreed in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992). They argue that emissions per person in China are low, that raising incomes must be their highest priority, and that industrialized countries bear primary responsibility for the historical buildup of GHGs in the atmosphere; therefore the industrialized countries should lead in mitigating emissions
domestically. Industrialized countries also, they say, should assist developing countries with financial and technological support to mitigate emissions and adapt to coming change.

Debate on potential climate change legislation in the United States has been influenced by China’s surging GHG emissions, and uncertainty over whether, how, and when China might alter that trend. There is concern that strong U.S. domestic action taken without Chinese reciprocity would unfairly advantage China in global trade, and fail to slow significantly the growth of atmospheric concentrations of GHGs. The governments of both China and the United States have indicated some closure of their gap on future actions to address climate change by agreeing on national pledges to GHG targets and mitigation actions rather than binding international obligations. China is also engaged with many other countries in bilateral programs to build its governance and technological capacities to abate its GHG emissions.

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