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By Catharine Richert December 11, 2009

Proposals allow emerging economies more carbon emissions

On Day 2 of the climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin decided to weigh in.

Her op-ed, published in the Dec. 9, 2009, edition of the Washington Post , enumerated her concerns about a series of e-mails that skeptics say show disagreement over the seriousness of climate change and President Barack Obama's plan to pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels. We wrote a separate story on the e-mails . Here, we'll look at the emissions questions.

Palin argues that developing countries, like India and China, should at least be equal partners in the effort to slow global warming; it's unfair for the United States to shoulder the burden.

"Unlike the proposals China and India offered prior to Copenhagen -- which actually allow them to increase their emissions -- President Obama's proposal calls for serious cuts in our own long-term carbon emissions," she wrote.

Is that really what is happening?

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On Nov. 27, 2009, China announced it will lower emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

That may sound like a lot, but it's important to read the fine print here. China is talking about lowering carbon intensity. It's a measurement of how much energy it takes to produce a given amount of economic output. Climate experts say this means emissions from China will likely continue to grow along with its economy, but not as quickly as they would have otherwise.

"Let's say you commit to an intensity target of -6% per year in carbon/GDP," wrote climate scientist Jonathan Koomey, professor at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. "If your GDP grows at 10% per year, that means your carbon emissions will still grow 4% per year. So you're improving your carbon efficiency but absolute emissions are still increasing."

Indeed, China's GDP is growing rapidly. In the third quarter of this year, it grew 8.9 percent, likely bringing the total annual growth to 8 percent.

On Dec. 4, India offered a similar proposal. Officials there say the country is prepared to cut carbon intensity from 20 to 25 percent by 2020. It's a landmark announcement for India; traditionally, the country has argued that it cannot afford to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But like China, India's economy is growing rapidly, and with it its carbon emissions.

Obama, on the other hand, is arguing for a cut large enough that the United States would see an absolute reduction in emissions, explained Koomey. (Obama's plan to trim emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 is part of a cap-and-trade change bill pending in the House of Representatives. A Senate bill would require a 20 percent cut.) Koomey, like many climate scientists, say overall cuts -- even from developing countries -- are necessary to really slow down climate change.

While the United States' proposed cuts are more stringent than those proposed by China or India, they're less aggressive than the 25 to 50 percent emissions reduction scientists say countries must adopt to hold global average temperature increases to about 2 degrees Celsius.

So, where does that leave Palin's claim? She's correct that China and India's plans will allow them to increase emissions, while the United States would have to cut back. For this claim, Palin gets a True.

Our Sources

The Switchboard, China's Carbon Intensity Target , by Barbara Finamore, Nov. 27, 2009

The Washington Post, Copenhagen's political science , by Sarah Palin, Dec. 9, 2009

The Washington Post, China sets target for emissions cuts , by Juliet Elperin, Nov. 27, 2009

The Green Grok, Copenhagen Warm-Ups , Bill Chameides | Dec 04, 2009

Time Magazine, China's Pledge on Carbon Emissions: Is It Enough?, By Bryan Walsh, Dec. 01, 2009

The Washington Post, In a shift, India announces plan to slow pace of carbon emissions , By Rama Lakshmi, December 4, 2009

CNN, China's GDP grows nearly 9 percent last quarter , Oct. 22, 2009

ClimateProgress, Why two degrees really matters , by Jonathan Koomey and Florentin Krause, Dec. 6, 2009

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Proposals allow emerging economies more carbon emissions

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