China has announced its first carbon intensity target, which aims to slow the increase of emissions relative to economic growth by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020. Carbon intensity is a phrase much derided by some environmentalists who say it fails to address underlying trends in carbon emissions growth. In China’s case, this measure will still lead to an increase of about 90% in CO2 emissions if the economy grows by 8% over the next decade. It’s worth comparing the Chinese target with Obama’s recent announcement on emissions cuts. The World Resources Institute calculates that President Obama’s goal of a 17% emissions reduction is worth slightly more than a 40% improvement in carbon intensity.

The significance lies in the fact that China has already modernized most of its stock of coal fired stations, meaning that there are few quick carbon cut fixes, potentially leading to a large scale renewable energy investment. The Renewable Energy Law of 2006 and the Medium and Long-Term Development Plan for Renewable Energy in China, promulgated by Beijing in September 2007, have already contributed to an increase in wind power generation from 1000 MW to a projected 15 GW by the end of the year, potentially 3% of China’s overall energy portfolio.

China will remain the world’s biggest polluter for the foreseeable future, but is this the first sign of China’s changing stance?

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