China’s carbon emissions will stop rising well before 2030, if the country hits the more ambitious end of its target range for cutting carbon intensity, which it published on Tuesday.

The target was part of China’s pledge, under a prospective global climate agreement expected to be signed by all countries in Paris at the end of the year. China’s pledge follows targets to cut emissions recently published by the United States and the European Union.

China said it would cut the carbon intensity of its economy by 60-65 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

Carbon intensity is the level of carbon emissions per unit of economic output. Calculating the implications for actual carbon emissions requires certain assumptions about economic growth.

I looked at two scenarios for China’s GDP growth, one using international dollars, and one using local currency.

In both cases, I used OECD GDP growth forecasts (thanks to Simon Evans at Carbon Brief for finding that), which assumes  that GDP growth will fall to 3.5% annually by 2030. Regarding historical CO2 data, I used BP data for carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels in energy production (i.e. excluding cement).

For the scenario using international dollars, I used World Bank GDP data in constant 2011 international dollars. Under this scenario, China’s carbon emissions would peak as early as 2020, if it hit the more ambitious end of its target range for carbon intensity cuts by 2030.

For the scenario using local currency, I used UN GDP data in 2005 constant local currency (thanks to CICERO’s Glen Peters for pointing this one out). This appears to be the data that China is using, since it shows carbon intensity falling by 33% in 2014 versus 2005 levels, in line with China’s statement on Tuesday.

This second scenario therefore seems to be the important one to focus on. It shows China carbon emissions peaking in 2024, at 11.1 billion tonnes, or not at all, according to which end of their target range they achieve. (see chart below)

What does all this tell us?

1. Carbon intensity targets are more opaque than absolute targets for carbon emissions.

2. Regardless of how you measure it, China’s carbon emissions will peak well before 2030, if the country meets  the more ambitious end of its target range for carbon intensity cuts in 2030.

3. But we should remember China’s challenges to cut emissions, rather than just peaking them. Using IEA data, I calculate that more than three quarters of the country’s present coal-fired capacity has been built since 1999, which will still have more than a decade of operating life remaining in 2030. That may put China in the position of having to close these coal plants prematurely, or else apply expensive carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, for the world to meet more ambitious climate change targets.

China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter. For the world to reach an international target of limiting global average warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, China’s emissions should peak before 2030, and then fall steadily, climate scientists say.

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