You’ll find a list of skeptical worries here from Chris Buckley, most of them justified. In a nutshell, if you can’t believe their gdp numbers you also can’t believe their cap and trade plan. I am nonetheless more optimistic about this recent development. It signals a few things:
1. The Chinese have decided to make “doing something about carbon” a potential source of soft power in the international arena. They are giving themselves an option on this path, and in the meantime trying to minimize the reputational deficit they face from being the world’s largest source of carbon.
2. The Chinese plan to cut pollution in at least some of their major cities soon, and they want to claim credit for that action in advance. (In fact they are surprised how rapidly some of those days of blue skies have appeared in Beijing, whether that be the added regulation or the economic slowdown.) “Carbon emissions” and “pollution” are hardly identical, but still the government is repositioning itself rapidly on the issue of pollution more generally. This is one welcome part of that broader shift, so don’t worry if not all the details add up.
3. The Chinese leadership expects the domestic economy to be weak for a while, so they can announce a semi-serious carbon cap and meet it, without actually giving up any economic growth. Of course this #3 isn’t good news on the economic front, but maybe the Chinese government first does need a period of time where such a policy has zero economic cost.
The evidence from the European Union is that their cap and trade program hasn’t worked well, mostly because of time consistency problems, namely that more and more permits are issued and the cap ends up weak over time. That same problem may or may not apply to China. But even a strong pessimist about cap and trade can be modestly optimistic about the new Chinese announcement.