Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia

China's Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Mitigation Policies *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia

China's Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Mitigation Policies *

Article excerpt


China's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have drawn attention in the United States because of their environmental and economic implications. China's actions to address climate change also hold implications for broader economic and security concerns in the United States.

Scientific evidence that the Earth's climate is changing, and that humanrelated GHG emissions are a major driver of that change, has led to debate over whether and how to control GHG emissions. Once emitted, GHG persist in the atmosphere for years to centuries (and for some gases, millennia). They allow solar radiation to enter the Earth' system, but prevent much of the absorbed energy from escaping back out to space. Scientists agree that the Earth's atmosphere serves as a "blanket" that warms the Earth's surface and that a certain concentration of GHG is essential to maintain the planet at habitable temperatures. There is less agreement on how much warming would result from the higher atmospheric GHG concentrations expected if emissions from fossil fuel use, deforestation, and some agricultural and industrial processes continue. Scientific concerns in the 1980s led to initiation of intergovernmental discussions in 1989 to stabilize GHG concentrations and avoid potentially "dangerous" global temperature rise. These concerns led to negotiation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In the late 1980s, climate experts broadly understood that climate change driven by human- related GHG emissions was a global challenge: all major emitting countries would need to engage in slowing then reducing their emissions of GHG as well as increasing GHG removals by "sinks" (e.g., growing forests). When the UNFCCC was opened for signature in 1992,1 the already industrialized countries2 emitted almost 80% of the global carbon dioxide (CO2) from energy and industry.3,4 The CO2 emissions of the United States and the European Union were about 23% and 20%, respectively, of the global total. China's were about 11%. All the "developing" countries at the time contributed about one-third. Low income countries saw GHG-driven climate change as a problem made by the industrialized countries. Considering low income countries' challenged financial, technological, and governance capacities, they were not included in the UNFCCC's Annex I, which lists countries with quantitative GHG control targets for the 1990s. Nonetheless, the UNFCCC contained a principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" among its Parties, with consensus that the already industrialized countries should lead in controlling their emissions and that all countries have obligations to address climate change. Annex I established abifurcation between the Parties listed in Annex I and the Non-Annex I Parties. (Countries are frequently referred to as "developed" versus "developing," although the distinction is undefined and arguably a misleading simplification of the spectrum of differences among countries).

Scientific analyses have concluded that rising GHG concentrations in the atmosphere cannot be stabilized unless all major emitting countries abate their net emissions to near zero.5 Despite efforts of many countries to reduce their GHG emissions, the continued and rapid growth of emissions from such large emitters as China and the United States has called into question the efficacy of the UNFCCC in meeting its objective of stabilizing concentrations of GHG in the atmosphere. As China's share of global GHG emissions has grown from about 11% in 1990 to about 21% today, and continues to grow, a broad set of observers have concluded that effectively slowing human-induced climate change depends on Chinese reductions of its emissions, as well as reductions from the United States and all other large emitters.

Issues for Congress

U.S. congressional debate on potential climate change policies in the United States frequently invokes China's (and other emerging economies') surging greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as skepticism over whether, how, and when China might alter that trend. …

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