Critical Mass: China, India, and the United States are Working Together to Mitigate Climate Change

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Critical Mass: China, India, and the United States are Working Together to Mitigate Climate Change


The United States Congress is considering placing limits on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but there is a concern that if China and India do not limit their emissions then efforts by the United States will not be enough. There is also fear that, if the US acts alone, it could create a competitive disadvantage in trade for the United States.

However, China and India have recently taken significant steps to reduce their GHG emissions even as their industries continue to grow develop their economies. The United States is also reengaging with the international negotiations to reduce GHG emissions by pledging reductions. In December 2009, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will have its 15th Conference of the Parties (COP-15) in Copenhagen, Denmark. The parties will be negotiating a treaty with binding greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals to follow the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Below are highlights of the recent commitments announced by China, India and the United States:

  • China has made significant, voluntary GHG emission reduction goals of 40-45% per unit of GDP by 2020.

  • India announced reductions of their carbon intensity by 20-25% by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.

  • India has invested $922 million in solar power, with expectations of spending $20 billion by 2022 to create 20 GW of power.

  • China and India both have national plans outlining their strategy to reduce GHG emissions.

  • President Obama and President Hu Jintao finalized 7 energy and environment agreements during President Obama’s recent visit to China.

  • The United States has pledged reductions of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% below by 2050.


The United States is historically the largest emitter of GHGs, but has recently been surpassed by China as the leading annual emitter. However, with only 5.8 tCO2e per capita emissions of GHGs, China ranks only 30th globally in per capita emissions.i India, another rapidly growing economy, is in a similar situation, but ranks lower ( 66th) in per capita emissions than Chinaii. The following chart summarizes some of the key GHG emissions-related statistics for China and the United States:iii


The economies of these three counties, China, India and the United States are closely tied in trade and competition. In order for the international negotiations to be a success, these three countries must work closely with another. A positive step is a recent agreement between the United States and China to cooperate in measuring China’s GHG emissions. The US Environmental Protection Agency will work with China’s Development and Reform Agency to ensure accurate collection of data, similar to previous successful collaborations between the two countries on sulfur dioxide emissions.iv This collaboration works to shore up fears that China is not capable of tracking their own emissions and is emitting far more GHGs than claimed. Further evidence that the United States and China are taking serious steps together was demonstrated during President Obama’s recent trip to China, where he finalized a number of energy and environment agreements with China’s President Hu Jintaov:

  • The U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center

  • The U.S.-China Electric Vehicles Initiative

  • The U.S.-China Energy Efficiency Action Plan

  • The U.S.-China Renewable Energy Partnership

  • A 21st Century Coal Initiative

  • A Shale Gas Initiative

  • The U.S.-China Energy Cooperation Program


China and India have recently committed to reducing their GHG emissions voluntarily. In the run up to COP-15, China announced it would reduce its GHG emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020. This voluntary goal is measured against a different baseline than typical climate treaty commitments; that is, per unit of GDP rather than emissions reduced below a specific year. This reduction goal is consistent with what China has already outlined in their National Climate Change Program that is aimed at making significant progress in controlling climate change and integrating climate change into broader national

India has also announced reductions of their carbon intensity by 20-25% percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels, which are in line with their National Action Plan on Climate Change.vii The Action Plan commits India to maintaining lower per capita emission than those of developed countries as India’s economy continues to grow. India’s government also recently announced a $922 million investment in solar power to jumpstart renewable energy capacity building and to reduce their dependence on coal, India’s primary source of energy. India is not currently able to meet their energy demands, falling 10-17% short in recent years, and is attempting to bridge some of that gap with renewable, low carbon energy sources such as solar power.viii India’s current installed renewable energy capacity accounts for almost 10% of the totally supply, compared to 3.8% in the United States.ix India partly justifies their need for continued, unrestrained economic growth with the energy shortfalls but they are working to make up the difference with significant gains in renewable energy production. Even though India is one of the world’s leading producers of coal, it is still a net importer struggling to meet energy needs.x

A major component of the international climate agreements is the continuation of economic and technological assistance for developing countries to assist in reducing GHG emissions. China and India can also take part in GHG reduction through projects funded by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). CDM, a program which allows developed countries to fund carbon offset projects in developing countries, transfers investment and technology into reduction strategies in developing countries. China has recently called for developed countries to contribute 1% of their GDP to a technology fund to spur innovation to reduce emissions.xi

President Obama announced GHG reductions goals for the United States that are similar to those expected to be negotiated in the Senate, 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% by 2050. These targets fall short of what climate scientists predict will be needed, but is the first time the United States has offered reduction targets since signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1998. The Kyoto Protocol was never ratified by Congress. The international community is hopeful that the United States will negotiate and commit to reduction levels during this round of negotiations. Without serious efforts made by the United States, other large contributors such as China, India, Russia, Brazil and the EU are less likely to agree to and then follow through on aggressive emission reductions.


China and India both have domestic climate change mitigation strategies that are aimed at integrating climate change into the planning of all aspects of the countries’ development. China is even expected to include climate change as in integral component of their 12th 5-year plan, which begins in 2011. China was the first developing country to issue an action plan on climate change, the National Climate Change Program. The plan places a strong emphasis on energy efficiency, but also tackles adaptation measures through agriculture and water projects. Three significant policy goals are presented in the National Climate Change Program: reduce national energy intensity by 20% by 2011, increase percent of alternative fuels in the fuel mix to 15% by 2020, and increase forest cover to 20% of China’s land mass by the end of 2010xii. These goals will serve to increase economic efficiency in the energy and industrials sectors as well as create a demand for clean energy technology production.

China is in an excellent position to achieve their first two goals through increased energy efficiency and fuel mixing and must meet their third goal in order to avoid increased desertification and water shortages. There are clear economic and environmental incentives for China to meet their proposed voluntary GHG reduction goals.

Likewise, India has outlined eight different areas, mitigation and adaption, that they are working on to reduce their overall GHG emissions in their National Action Plan on Climate Change. This includes increases in solar power, improved energy efficiency, creation of sustainable habitats, water management, protection of the Himalayan ecosystem, reforestation, sustainable agriculture, and improved strategic knowledge.xiii Examples of specific methods include implementing improved agricultural techniques such as drought and pest resistant crops to increase yield.xiv India has many of the same economic and environmental incentives as China in following through on their domestic action plan. By increasing renewable power generation, India will be able to decrease import of foreign coal which is currently relies heavily on to generate electricity. India and China have created plans that allow them to continue to grow and industrialize, but that also take into consideration GHG emissions.


In order for the international community make serious gains in reducing GHG emissions, China, India, and the United States must make considerable efforts to set and meet reduction targets. Cooperation between these three countries is vital to bringing each other, other developed countries and even other developing countries to take on meaningful reduction levels. Mounting agreements between the countries suggest an increased seriousness about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

i World Resources Institute. (2009 June). National Climate Change Strategies: Comparative Analysis of Developing Country Plans. Retrieved from

ii Ibid.

iii World Resources Institute, (2009 Oct). China, the United States, and the Climate Change Challenge. Retrieved from

iv US Environmental Protection Agency. (2009, November 19). EPA Signs Memorandum of Cooperation with China to Build Capacity to Address Climate Change. Retrieved from

v AgriPulse. (2009, November). Playing the China Card to help US Energy Companies Compete. Vol. 5, No. 45.

vi World Resources Institute, (2009 Oct). China, the United States, and the Climate Change Challenge. Retrieved from

vii AFP. (2009 Dec). Indian govt. under pressure over carbon pledge. Retrieved from

viii Financial Chronicle. (2009 Oct). India’s Strategy in Copenhagen. Retrieved from’s-strategy-copenhagen-858

ix World Resources Institute. (2009, November). Dispelling Myths about India and Climate Change. Retrieved from

x Energy Information Administration. (2009 March). Country Analysis Briefs: India. Retrieved from

xi British Broadcasting Corporation. (2009 Dec). Where Countries Stand on Copenhagen. Retrieved from

xii World Resources Institute. (2009 June). National Climate Change Strategies: Comparative Analysis of Developing Country Plans. Retrieved from

xiii World Resources Institute. (2009 June). National Climate Change Strategies: Comparative Analysis of Developing Country Plans. Retrieved from

xiv Ibid.

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