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[ Chinese Adviser’s Carbon Cap Remarks: Promising But Overblown? ]

A top Chinese climate adviser signaled Tuesday that the country planned to set a new cap on carbon emissions by the end of the decade, which would be the first such effort from the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The comments by He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, came a day after U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration proposed the first-ever carbon limits for existing power plants. (See related story: “Four Key Takeaways from EPA’s New Rules for Power Plants.”)

The adviser, speaking at a conference in Beijing, said that the cap on emissions starting from 2016 would come as part of China’s next five-year plan. “The government will use two ways to control CO2 emissions in the next five-year plan, by intensity and an absolute cap,” he said, according to Reuters. China is responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. (See related interactive map: “Four Ways to Look at Carbon Footprints.”)

He did not provide specifics about what the target would be, and the comment was not an official announcement. But the way some media outlets interpreted the remarks became a story in and of itself, as The New York Times‘ Andrew Revkin noted that the Guardian and USA Today mistakenly billed the comments as a “pledge” from China to reduce emissions. Reuters later issued a corrected version of its original story, changing the attribution from “China said” to “a senior government adviser said.”

Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, said that He Jiankun is “effectively one of the most senior advisers” to the climate minister at China’s National Development Reform Commission, “one of the most powerful ministries in China.”

Schmidt said, “As with many things in China, these officials don’t speak unless there’s some emerging consensus in the government that this is a position that they’re trending toward. I think it’s a very positive sign that this kind of debate has taken hold.” (Take the related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Energy in Asia.”)

The United States, which ranks second in world carbon emissions, has committed via the Copenhagen Accord to reducing its emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

The rules proposed yesterday would require U.S. states to reduce pollution from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels over the next 15 years. States will be able to create their own plans for how to meet the targets.

The carbon reductions at stake with the power plant goals are extremely modest from a global standpoint, but have been widely seen as momentous action on climate change from the Obama administration, which has been  unable to push major climate legislation through Congress. (See related story: “One Key Question on Obama’s Push Against Climate Change: Will It Matter?“)

Sarah Ladislaw, a director and senior fellow of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said last week that U.S. action on climate change was critical to shoring up confidence from other nations as the world prepares for international climate talks in Paris next year. She said, “It’s really about the United States and China trying to show—and actually define—what leadership is on this issue.”

The next round of climate talks under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change begins tomorrow in Bonn, Germany.

NRDC’s Schmidt said that ahead of next year’s climate talks in Paris, key emitting countries including the U.S., China, and India are expected to announce their climate targets beyond 2020. “In that context,” he said, “there’s a very intense debate in China about when its emissions will peak, and at what level.”

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