This week, the International Energy Agency delivered the startling news that China’s greenhouse gases declined sharply this year and that the country "will be at the forefront of combatting climate change by 2020 if it meets government targets," as the Financial Times put it in a pre-release report about a forthcoming IEA study. The IEA found that emissions are down generally, largely as a result of the global recession, but also because of policies in several key regions: the European Union's effort to cut emissions 20 percent by 2020, tightening U.S. standards for automotive fuel efficiency, and Chinese energy efficiency programs.
IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol said that if China achieves its 2020 efficiency targets, "it will be the country that has achieved the largest emissions reductions."
The sharp drop in global greenhouse gas emissions, yet to be definitively quantified, is itself a positive development, in that it will make it easier to negotiate further reductions in emissions at the upcoming Copenhagen climate conference. In meetings here in New York City this week, there was evidence the gap between the advanced industrial countries and the rapidly industrializing countries might be narrowing. A speech by Chinese President Hu Jintao at the United Nations was generally hailed for its positive tone, even though he declined to make any specific numerical commitments. Even more significant (if much less widely reported) was a signal from India indicating it might be ready to set numerical targets for its greenhouse gas emissions, having always said previously it would not accept such targets.
To judge from reporting experience on the ground in India and China, concern about climate change is higher in those countries than one might suppose. Ten years ago, developing a special report for IEEE Spectrum magazine about the "dilemma of coal-fired power" in the two countries, this blogger found a surprisingly high level of awareness and concern among government officials in Beijing. Partly that reflected a closely related concern about the health effects of coal plant pollution: hundreds of thousands of Chinese die from exposure to the pollution each year, making this a public health crisis. And that's by no means the only and possibly not even the most serious aspect of emissions and climate change. Five years later, reporting at article for Spectrum about a big dam on the Yellow River, I was surprised to discover that the river was drying up--the result of a long drought in the Tibetan highlands, probably aggravated by global warming.
China and India are both highly agricultural countries with billions of mouths to feed. The medium-term effects of climate change in both countries could be devastating.