03/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Note to Secretary Clinton: China is Measuring its Way to Progress on Climate Change

New data should cheer Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and her Chinese counterparts as they address climate change during her first visit to China as a representative of the new US administration. China's latest economic report shows some welcome strides toward controlling greenhouse gas emissions. With climate change one of Secretary Clinton's top priorities, China's approach is not only welcome news, it suggests the opportunity for using approaches from developing countries to help bridge the gap in international negotiations.

As shown in the figure below, China and the U.S. together account for nearly 40% of the world's aggregate GHG emissions. If the world is to agree on a global climate treaty by December in Copenhagen, it is essential that China and the U.S. both be at the forefront of the negotiations.

China, in its 11th 5-year plan, set targets to reduce national energy intensity -- the measure of energy used per unit of GDP -- by 20% in the five years between 2006 and the end of 2010, an average reduction of 4% per year. These efforts, along with targets and measurement systems established by other countries, can help to build trust in international climate relations, helping countries to assess progress and share best practices.

Setting targets is one thing, but achieving them is quite another, and one of the fundamental challenges is measuring and tracking progress. Developed countries -- including the U.S. -- have been measuring greenhouse gas emissions for quite some time using tested, economy-wide accounting practices. As a result, the U.S. has a good idea of which sectors are contributing to national GHG emissions, which in turn helps to inform important policy choices. But this has not generally been the case in developing countries, which often don't have the experience, history, or institutional capacity to measure GHG emissions with the precision necessary to support a target expressed in those terms.

China's GHG Measurement System and Results

As an alternative, China has pioneered the use of energy intensity measurement as a proxy for GHG emissions. And the Chinese government is using improvements in energy intensity as a measure of domestic progress in advancing the goals of energy independence, climate change mitigation, and pollution reduction.

Compared to the early part of this decade, China's 20% energy intensity reduction target is especially noteworthy. In fact, the country's energy intensity actually worsened in the early 2000's, as it invested heavily in infrastructure and raw materials (like steel and cement) to support its expanding economy.

But China has made significant progress in the last three years, suggesting the power of setting targets and of being mindful of the advantages of the underlying goals -- including saving money by saving energy. The efficiency gains were largest in some of the most energy-intensive sectors, including power generation, steel production and mining, where the government gave targets to individual companies and monitored them closely. The latest figures, released on January 22nd, reveal energy intensity reductions of 1.8% in 2006, 3.7% in 2007, and 4.2% in 2008, surpassing the 4% annualized goal. It now looks likely that China will be able to reach its 20% goal by 2010.

Is Energy Intensity a Good Indicator of China's Effort to Measure and Mitigate GHG Emissions?

Energy intensity is relatively simple both to calculate and verify -- most countries have invested heavily in calculating GDP, and energy is generally produced and imported in a relatively finite number of locations. It is not a perfect measure: for example, it doesn't capture emissions from chemical processes or deforestation. Nor does it account for improvements made by moving away from coal to low-carbon energy sources such as renewables or nuclear power.

But for countries that depend on fossil fuels for the majority of their energy, energy intensity is a reliable measure of progress, and the most critical areas for making gains. If it were combined with a few other simple measures, such as a measure of renewable energy in the energy mix and a measure of the reforestation or deforestation rate (both of which China already tracks and reports), the result would be a good snapshot of developing country progress.

Ultimately, countries will need to do more than reduce their energy intensity if the climate problem is to be solved. But China's recent progress on measurement of energy intensity suggests a useful path forward in the near term for developing countries, with developed country support. Actions based on metrics that can be reliably measured and managed within such countries are more likely to deliver tangible results. Achieving these kinds of results, in turn, could lead to success at the UN-led international climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December.

Hilary McMahon, a Senior Associate at the World Resources Institute, contributed to this post.