DURBAN, South Africa -- An influential Chinese analyst says his country may adjust how it measures carbon emission targets as early as 2020, bringing it more in line with Western governments and signaling a possible opening in international climate negotiations.
Xu Huaqing, a senior researcher for China's Energy Research Institute, was quoted Friday in the semiofficial China Daily as saying Beijing could set absolute caps on its carbon emissions – comments later confirmed privately by one of China's top climate negotiators on the sidelines of the international climate talks in South Africa.
It was the first time China has mentioned a timetable toward a hard emissions cap, the article said, and was seen as a significant move by veteran China watchers.
Until now, China has spoken of emissions controls purely in terms of energy intensity, or the amount of energy it uses per unit of economic production. It pledged last year to reduce its energy input by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
China is the world's largest emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gas and a main foil of industrial countries in U.N. negotiations on an accord to control global emissions. Virtually every statement, official or from one of China's approved think tanks like the energy institute, is parsed and dissected by delegates seeking departures from its public positions.
Most other countries have set targets for controlling emissions in absolute terms. The European Union, for example, has committed to slash total emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.
The change in emissions limits does not mean that China will begin reducing them immediately. As its economy grows, its emissions will continue to rise, probably into the 2030s, Xu was quoted as saying.
Jake Schmidt, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Xu is considered a conservative, and his words carry more punch than if they came from one of the more liberal analysts of the think tank.
"Sometimes China floats ideas from groups like the ERI," that carry weight even though they are not official policy, Schmidt said.
Su Wei, head of the Chinese delegation at the 192-party talks, confirmed Xu's comments in a private meeting with nongovernment organizations late Thursday.
But Su said the shift would be dependent on the state of China's development at the time, said Fuquiang Yang, also of the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council who once was a researcher for Xu's prestigious think tank.
Elaborating on Xu's statement, Su told the nonprofit groups that a shift to absolute caps depended on how far China had moved toward a low-carbon economy, whether it had improved its energy efficiency, and whether it can obtain and deploy new technologies. It also wanted to see efficiency reflected in Chinese consumer behavior, said Fuquiang.
In a public meeting Friday, Su said China needed to continue its development. Although it would do its part in fighting climate change, he said, China "needs to have a reasonable consumption of energy ... Emissions must grow to meet the needs of the people."The climate talks began Monday and continue next week with the arrival of higher ranking delegations. The U.N. said it expected 12 heads of state, mostly from Africa, and 136 Cabinet ministers to attend the final four days of talks, which are due to end Dec. 9.