So we finally have the long awaited emissions reduction offers from the US and China: a 17% reduction from 2005 levels from the US and a 40-45% reduction in ‘the carbon intensity of the economy’ by 2020 from China. The momentum towards Copenhagen seems to be gaining by the hour and these developments must be welcomed.

The EU’s initial offer of a 20% cut on 1990 levels over the same time period is the third important part of the jigsaw. These three country blocks account for around 60% of global emissions so what they do is incredibly important.

But all three have expressed their targets differently so how can they be compared?

It almost seems as if there is a conspiracy to confuse with numbers but what’s actually happening is countries are formulating targets in ways that benefit them. So to help make sense of the numbers we’ve developed a quick and easy [target convertor](http://sandbag.org.uk/targetconvertor “”) .

China’s impressive sounding target to reduce its carbon intensity is actually only a commitment to a 0-12% cut off their business as usual emissions in 2020 (depending on what version of the future you choose to compare it to) or roughly a 40% increase on current levels.

The US’s number, as US NGOs, frustrated by the lost decade under Bush are keen to point out, amounts to only a 4% cut on 1990 levels.

But Europe is also playing the same game – the 1990 baseline for our targets massively benefits us since it allows us to count the emissions reductions that occurred in the 1990’s due to the collapse of Soviet economies that are now part of the EU. The combination of this unearned reduction, with a handful of one-off reductions in industrial gases in a few countries, delivered Europe its Kyoto target ahead of schedule and we are now set to achieve more than a 10% reduction by the end of this decade – helped along by the current recession. Therefore, compared to 2005 emissions our current 20% target is only a 13% reduction by 2020.

So what is the best basis to judge whether countries are committing to comparable effort?
The main obstacle to reaching global agreement is countries’ concerns about their economic competitiveness. And clearly what impacts this most is the level of effort that needs to be expended to reduce emissions between now and the target deadline. So arguably the most sensible metric is to compare targets against most recent levels.

Recast against a 2007 baseline the US and EU numbers look like this:

EU: – 11.7%
US: – 17.3%

Clearly for the European Union to regain its leadership position it should immediately move to its conditional target of a 30% cut off 1990 levels by 2020 (meaning a 22% cut off 2007).

Over a number of years, the EU has claimed to be leading the world in reducing emissions. It has introduced a range of policies to try to curb emissions but these have been slow to start and dedicated climate and energy policies have delivered few savings to date. This is evident not only the emissions record so far but also from the continued unbroken link between emissions and economic growth or decline. Investment in energy infrastructure also appears not to have deviated significantly from ‘Business As Usual’, with many more coal fired power stations being proposed in Europe. Cap and trade regulation has been implemented on 50% of emissions, however, they have been set too leniently leading too surpluses in emissions permits and low prices.

More investment is now being made into renewable electricity but this is still too insignificant on its own to achieve a significant reduction in all energy related emissions. The harder tasks of reducing emissions from coal fired power stations and industrial plant and decarbonising our transport and heating systems has yet to begin in earnest. As a result, emissions in recent years, the effect of the recent recession aside, have been more or less static.

But the good news is that we do at least have some momentum and a policy head start over countries like the US. We must therefore commit to targets that are more ambitious. Only tougher targets will provide the impetus for serious policy change and investment on the ground. Which is why the targets announced over the last two days by the US and China are welcome since the EU should now be forced to move to its higher conditional target of at least a 30% cut from 1990 levels.

The current politics of Europe are not easy and there are some countries who are arguing against even the current levels of ambition but if Europe does not want to be left behind it needs to adopt targets which spur future investment in cleaner technologies at levels which are similar to those in the US and China. It is time for Europe to retake the lead.

Of course even if Europe does this, the collective effort now on the table still falls well short of the latest scientific recommendations that global emissions should peak and decline by 2015 to avoid a less than 50/50 chance of going above 2 degrees warming. Negotiators in Copenhagen must therefore try to ratchet up all the numbers currently on the table.

Failing that it is imperative that these numbers for 2020 are reviewed following the publication of the next scientific assessment due in 2014. By then, the world will be well on the way to developing clean energy technologies, and it should be possible for much more ambitious targets to be agreed. Capturing countries’ current ambitions now in a legally binding framework, even if they are low, is politically important but we should not see this as the final word. A decade is a long time and we must plan to increase our efforts as soon as possible.


A version of this blog appears on the [Guardian website](http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/cif-green/2009/nov/26/us-china-targets-mean “”).