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Something to be Thankful for: China’s Seeing the Light on Climate Change

Wenhai Lake and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Yunnan, China (photo: ChezShawna)

Wenhai Lake and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Yunnan, China (photo: ChezShawna)

The biggest weakness of the Kyoto protocol for dealing with the human-created emissions that are causing the decades-long rise in global temperature is that the two biggest polluters, the US and China, refused to sign it. China wouldn’t sign it largely because the US under Bush wouldn’t sign it, and the US under Bush wouldn’t sign it because the Bush Administration wasn’t just merely in bed with big industrial polluters, but actively worked for them, being oil execs and all.

But now we have a new president, and the Waxman-Markey bill is on the verge of becoming law. Furthermore, Kyoto’s signatories are already on pace not just to meet, but to exceed by over 50%, the goals set for 2012 — and they’re doing so without a) hurting their economies or b) causing industries to flee en masse to places with no emissions standards.

Finally, the effects of pollution and human-caused climate change are being brought home to the Chinese in very real and undeniable ways. There was of course the fact that factories near Beijing had to be shut down just to get the air to the point where athletes could safely breathe it. And recently, the famed “third pole,” the Everest region of Tibet, has been found by a Chinese documentary team to be warming up so rapidly that its glaciers — the water supply for many Chinese, as they feed the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers — are rapidly disappearing.

In the meantime, the global recession has actually come to our aid, buying us an extra 21 months to get our respective acts in gear. This is in large part because China reacted to the economic slowdown by shutting down its least productive plants, which also happened to be its oldest and most polluting.

All of this taken together helps to explain why President Obama was able to get China to agree to come to Copenhagen and roll out its first-ever set of official emissions limits — an achievement that Scientific American’s David Biello suggested was as important, if not more so, than the Copenhagen summit itself.

So, what will China’s likely emissions cuts look like?   They could look like this:

In September, President Hu Jintao promised a reduction in the amount of emissions measured by unit of output, a concept known as “emission intensity,” by a “notable margin.”

And while the government hasn’t publicly elaborated on what a “notable margin” would boil down to, negotiations are under way and numbers on the table, according to Wu Changhua, greater China director for the Climate Group, a U.K.-based environmental organization.

Ms. Wu said she expects that the government likely to announce a domestic carbon-intensity target before long. Over the next five years, the carbon intensity reduction may be in the range of 60% to 70%, she said, with “a medium-level ambition” for reductions of around 40% by 2020.

“If announced, that would be a huge commitment from China,” said Ms. Wu. A firm target on emissions reductions from China’s leadership would not face the same type of political wrangling that Obama faces in Congress.

That’s similar to the long-range effects aimed at by Waxman-Markey. And with China in less than a decade coming from almost nowhere to becoming the second-biggest wind-energy producer in the world by this time next year, it’s a goal they are going to work very hard to meet. Now if we can get Congress to work to meet them halfway, that will be something for which we can all be thankful.

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