Is China's climate pledge full of hot air?

Zhang Peng | LightRocket | Getty Images

China's climate pledge to the United Nations this week has been heralded as proof of the country's new commitment to the environment, but some experts believe the government is under-promising.

Beijing said it would slash the carbon intensity of gross domestic product (GDP), i.e. the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar of GDP, by 60-65 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. That amounts to a 2 percent annual decline from now to 2030, HSBC estimates. Previously, the country was targeting a 40-45 percent cut by 2020.

The world's second-largest economy also repeated its intention to peak emissions around 2030 or earlier, and to increase the share of non-fossil fuel in the primary energy mix to 20 percent by 2030, promises the country first made last November.

While Beijing's pledge is a positive sign, it must be seen as only the starting point for much more ambitious action, according to Greenpeace China.

"It does not fully reflect the significant energy transition that is already taking place in China. Given the dramatic fall in coal consumption, robust renewable energy uptake, and the urgent need to address air pollution, we believe the country can go well beyond what it has proposed today," noted climate analyst Li Shuo.

Former Shell chairman Ronald Oxburgh echoed that view. "China tends to be conservative on targets like this, so it seems likely that Chinese emissions will peak before 2030," he said in a statement.

Why China is the world's top spender in clean energy
Why China is the world's top spender in clean energy

The new targets were outlined in the China's Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), a public declaration of what actions governments intend to take under a new climate agreement expected to be signed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris at year end.

Other key measures included in Beijing's submission were a long-term strategy for low carbon development, control of total coal consumption, the roll-out of a national trading scheme and increasing nuclear and renewables capacity in order for the nascent industries to be 15 percent of GDP by 2020.

The Natural Resources Defense Council singled out coal as a sector that needed more focus seeing as Beijing is the world's top consumer of the fuel.

"China should establish a strong national coal cap in the next Five Year Plan to peak its coal consumption before 2020 and enable a swifter transition to a clean energy future," noted Fuqiang Yang, the group's climate change senior advisor.

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The COP21 is being hailed as a landmark event that hopes to make carbon emission reductions an unavoidable element of an economy's growth plan. As the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is crucial to a new climate deal in December.

While HSBC calls China's targets ambitious in a climate context, the bank believes they are feasible to achieve since they harmonize with the country's growth plan.

"The emissions from key industries such as power, iron and steel and nonferrous metals will be controlled through specific emissions standards. This is in line with the 'Made in China 2025' plan from May, which aims to cut the carbon intensity of industry specifically by 40 percent by 2025 from 2015."

With China on board, HSBC expects the pressure to build for other Asian heavyweights like India to announce their INDCs very soon.