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China signals intention to cap carbon, a day after US pledges cuts

No exact figures were announced, but the move was praised by those involved with tough UN climate talks

China said Tuesday it will set an absolute cap on its CO2 emissions starting in 2016 — a potentially landmark move that, coupled with an earlier U.S. announcement on power plant emission curbs, could boost sluggish United Nations efforts to produce a new global climate accord.

The exact extent of the cuts was not announced, but officials said renewable energy would account for up to 25 percent of the country’s energy production and nuclear power would be ramped up by the end of the next decade.

“The Chinese announcement marks potentially the most important turning point in the global scene on climate change for a decade,” said Michael Grubb, a professor of international energy and climate policy at University College London.

The international community hopes to conclude a global climate treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, when the United Nations will host a climate conference in Paris.

Global climate negotiations have been held back by a deep split between rich and poor nations — with many developing countries saying that they are already seeing the effects of climate change while not being significant contributors to the problem.

In the run-up to Paris, many have criticized the lack of leadership and commitments from the world’s top emitters. But pledges from the U.S. and China to reduce carbon emissions — coming within 24 hours of each other this week — has sparked optimism from climate negotiators and environmentalists.

China is the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases, is the top oil importer after the U.S. and is dealing with a public health crisis over its hazardous air pollution.

China said it will set an absolute cap on its CO2 emissions when its next five-year plan comes into force in 2016, He Jiankum, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, told a conference in Beijing on Tuesday.

The country set its first carbon targets in 2009, but those cuts were tied to its economic growth — meaning its absolute carbon emissions could increase if the economy grew.

But this is the first time China pledged to cap absolute emissions, regardless of economic performance. It is not clear at where the new cap will be set, and a final number is unlikely to be released until China has worked out more details of the five-year plan, possibly sometime next year.

China’s emissions currently stand at 7 billion to 9.5 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year, He said, and even with a cap, they are expected to peak in 2030 at about 11 billion tons.

But he said that would depend on China’s achieving a real reduction in coal consumption after 2020 or 2025 and on meeting its target of having 150 to 200 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2030.

The share of nonfossil fuels in China’s energy mix would reach 20 to 25 percent in 2030, He added.

China’s government has announced a target of putting 5 million electric or plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2020, part of Beijing’s efforts to fight pollution and reduce reliance on oil imports. BMW electric cars will start arriving in China in September. Preorders indicate the market could become the world’s biggest for green vehicles, BMW China president Karsten Engel said last week.

China’s carbon cap announcement comes a day after the U.S., the world’s second-biggest emitter, announced its own major carbon pollution reduction plan. On Monday, President Barack Obama said the U.S. would reduce emissions from the country’s power plants by 30 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, when its power plant emissions peaked.

A number of environmental groups hailed Obama’s action, but others have said the move will not do enough to combat the effects of climate change.

Scientists have warned that the global temperature increase, based on preindustrial levels, must be contained at 1.5 degrees Celsius in order to avoid climate catastrophe. That could require U.S. carbon cuts by 2030 of 50 percent from 2012 levels — a more significant baseline than 2005 numbers because emissions have reduced slightly, environmentalists said.

The international focus will now turn to Germany, where negotiators from over 190 nations meet Wednesday in Bonn for the latest 10-day round of talks in a process meant to lead to a new global climate treaty in Paris in December 2015.

“Interesting hint from Beijing, although the key point will be where [the cap] is set. If ambitious and announced well in advance of Paris, it could be a game changer,” said a spokesman for EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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