China said Thursday it was targeting a hefty 40-45 percent cut in carbon intensity by 2020 and Beijing also announced Premier Wen Jiabao would lead the nation's charge for real climate change progress at the Copenhagen summit.
The announcements came one day after the US declared it would cut carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level. Washington also said President Barack Obama would take part in the opening of the two-week UN climate change conference.
Experts said action by Beijing and Washington shows collective political will to reach a substantial deal in Copenhagen - something President Hu Jintao and Obama called for during their summit this month in Beijing.
After a meeting presided over by Wen on Wednesday, the State Council said it had reviewed a national plan to address climate change and announced that China would reduce the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2020 by the 40 to 45 percent.
The voluntary action on the part of the Chinese government was based on national conditions and will be a major contribution to the world's efforts in tackling climate change, the State Council said in a statement.
"Appropriate handling of the climate change issue is of vital interest to China's social and economic development and people's benefits, as well as the interests of all the people in the world and the world's long-term development," the statement read.
Xie Zhenhua, vice-minister in charge of the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planner, said the country will not swerve from its carbon emissions cut target despite pressure and difficulties.
China faces challenges in controlling greenhouse gas emissions because the country has a large population and relatively low economic development level and is at a critical period in accelerating industrialization and urbanization, Xie told a press conference held by the State Council Information Office last night.
China's official delegate at the Copenhagen meeting, Lu Xuedu, said the announcement was a sign of Beijing's commitment because UN climate treaties do not require developing countries, such as China, to agree to binding targets but urge rich countries to shoulder the responsibility.
"The target shows China's utmost political commitment to reach a successful deal in Copenhagen," said Lu, who is deputy director of the National Climate Center.
He said the undertaking was very ambitious. But he added that for it to be within reach, China would need technological and financial support from developed countries.
Yang Ailun, Greenpeace China's climate change campaign manager, said Wen's presence at the summit will be an "important push" for substantial outcomes from the international negotiations.
"The carbon intensity target is a positive signal that China, the largest developing country and one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters, is willing to take a new development path that can decouple economic growth with increase of carbon emissions," Yang said.
Yang from Greenpeace said China's announcement shows other countries the kind of commitment that is needed.
"This is another challenge to the industrialized world, particularly the US, which has just announced an inadequate emissions reduction target of only 4-5 percent (from the 1990 level) by 2020," said Yang.
Climate scientists hope the US and other developed countries will cut emissions by at least 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce emissions by 80-95 percent by 2050. Only then does the world have a hope of averting catastrophic or runaway climate change.
China and the G77 group had already called upon rich nations to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2020 from the 1990 level.
"The emissions reduction target offered by the US is still far below the expectations of developing countries," said Liu Qing, a researcher from the China Institute of International Studies. "It is also well below the targets proposed by the European Union and Japan."
Washington said earlier that Obama will attend the start of the conference on Dec 9 before heading to Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize.
His early stopover on the second day of the conference - instead of later when negotiations will be most intense and when most other national leaders will take part - disappointed some European and UN climate officials.
Yang said it will be more like a "photo opportunity".
But Yvo de Boer, the UN climate chief, said it will be important for the US to establish emissions reduction targets and a financial commitment to help developing countries address climate change.
"If he comes in the first week to announce that, it would be a major boost for the conference," De Boer told AP.