China may be the "champion of fighting against climate change" if government policies can be carried through to reach its energy efficiency goals while promoting renewable and nuclear power, said the chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Fatih Birol made the encouraging yet pressure-packed remarks at a workshop held yesterday by the Council on Foreign Relations to explain the World Energy Outlook 2009 released earlier this month by the IEA.
He said if China could reach all of its targets set for 2020, the country could reduce more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or 25 percent of what the world has to reduce to achieve climate stasis.
"Whether or not China could reach these targets, that we don't know. But look at their performance: They set a target, (and) they did it. There is no reason not to believe China could do it," Birol said.
The economist suggested the nation should be one of the countries to participate in a possible new global climate deal in Copenhagen next month and continue to set a goal for cutting "carbon intensity", as President Hu Jintao promised at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
"If China could set such a target, that'd be good enough for everybody," Birol told China Daily. "It doesn't need to be a commitment to reduction of CO2. It can be a commitment in terms of fuel intensity and other factors."
As China reaches its goal of reducing its energy intensity by 20 percent before 2010 set aside in the country's 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10), criticism is growing louder over whether the country will set out a more ambitious reduction goal in the succeeding 12th or 13th Five-Year plans.
"If China managed to achieve the goal set in its 11th Five-Year Plan, it could reduce CO2 emissions by 1.5 billion tons, and that achievement is much bigger than that of the entire European Union," said Li Gao, a division director of the climate change department of the National Development and Reform Commission.
"While the US discusses how big their target will be, China has already taken actions," he said, adding that China has received minimal financial or technological assistance from developed countries.
However, as the 2010 goal is likely to be achieved largely because of the government's efforts to close small, inefficient coal-fired power generators and because of the financial crisis, which shut down many factories, it would be less likely for China to adopt a more ambitious goal in emission cuts in the next five-year plan.
"We've already closed many small power plants, so we would not have more to close in the coming years It's not about the goal getting bigger, but setting a practical and achievable standard," Li said.
But Birol also pointed out that China is setting these targets not for the sake of climate change, but "in order to address its national energy security".
Rodney Nichols, a science and technology consultant, said the decisive factor for China to achieve carbon emissions targets is "economic growth".
"China is like the US, worrying more about the economic crisis than climate change," said Nichols, the former president of the New York Academy of Sciences. "It can be a leading force in addressing climate change if it really does pursue policies that are environmentally sound and constructive."
The World Energy Outlook 2009 outlines a plan that sets a timetable for actions that must be taken to limit the long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent. By keeping that level, the world will be able to control the temperature rise within 2 C above pre-industrial levels, a critical benchmark claimed by scientists.
In the plan, energy efficiency will account for more than half of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and low-carbon energy technologies will produce 60 percent of global electricity.
Birol pointed out that countries, such as China, India, the United States and those in Europe, are key to finding the solution to climate change.