BEIJING (Reuters) -- China has unveiled its first firm target to curb greenhouse gas emissions, laying out a carbon intensity goal that Premier Wen Jiabao will take to looming climate talks as his government's central commitment.
The announcement comes a day after the United States unveiled its proposal to cut greenhouse gases by 2020 and said President Barack Obama will attend the December 7-18 UN climate talks in Copenhagen. Beijing said today that Wen would also attend.
China, the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases from human activity, pledged to cut the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of national income 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels, the official Xinhua agency reported.
"This is a voluntary action taken by the Chinese government based on its own national conditions and is a major contribution to the global effort in tackling climate change," Xinhua said, quoting a cabinet meeting that was chaired by Wen.
The firm emissions commitment from China will help efforts to reach a deal at the UN-led talks in Denmark.
"This is a huge morale booster," said John Hay, spokesman for the UN Climate Change Secretariat, referring to the Chinese target and the planned visit by Obama.
"It is extremely welcome news that China is now putting specific figures on its reductions of carbon intensity towards 2020," said Kim Carstensen, leader of WWF International's global climate initiative.
Negotiations over a new climate change treaty have stalled as rich and poor nations argued over who should cut emissions, by how much and who should pay.
China's announcement after big emitters Brazil and Indonesia recently announced tough 2020 reduction targets and Wednesday's 2020 target from the United States are expected to help the Copenhagen talks, analysts say, although there are likely to be demands for tougher action.
The cabinet said that the goal, which will still allow China's greenhouse gas emissions to grow as the economy expands, was a demanding one for the developing country.
"Controlling greenhouse gas emissions faces enormous pressures and special hardships," the report on the meeting said.
China would embrace or extend a range of steps to reach the target, including financial and taxation policies, and continue a drive for more renewable, nuclear and clean-coal energy.
Pan Jiahua, a member of China's negotiating team for Copenhagen, said the intensity goal would demand big changes to his country's path of rapid, pollution-drenched growth.
"Personally I think this number is a bit high for China's present capabilities," said Pan, a climate policy expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"Achieving it will require shifting more from old power plants, and also financial subsidies -- for example, for power-saving appliances, clean vehicles, and so on."
But the goal was also in line with what many analysts said was China's current trend-line in carbon intensity, and that may leave at least some negotiators pressing for more in Copenhagen.
Beijing is already almost half-way to meeting the carbon intensity goal already after five years of an energy efficiency drive that has helped rein in emissions growth, so critics may counter that it is not ambitious enough.
"This is a significant announcement at a very important point in time," said Ailun Yang of Greenpeace China.
"Given the urgency and magnitude of the climate change crisis, China needs stronger measures to tackle climate change," she said in a statement.
Since China's emissions are still set to grow, some analysts also point to the need for China to ultimately announce a cap.
"It won't reduce emissions in absolute terms, those emissions will still probably grow in the next decade," said Trevor Sikorski, head of carbon research at Barclays Capital.
"Post-2020 Chinese emissions will be higher per capita and the pressure on them to take a binding cap will be much greater than it is now."
The State Council meeting also said the intensity goal was a "voluntary" one that would be measured and verified through "domestic" steps.
That may also leave room for negotiation over the extent to which the goal is brought into a binding international commitment under any new climate pact.
The White House said the United States will pledge in Copenhagen to cut its greenhouse gas emissions roughly 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, a drop of about 3 percent below the 1990 benchmark year used in UN treaties -- far below the 25-40 percent cut from 1990 levels recommended by the UN climate panel.
As a developing country, China is not obliged by current treaties to accept binding caps on its emissions, and it and other poor countries have said that principle should not change in any new deal that emerges from Copenhagen.
In a fast-moving week of climate developments, Australia's troubled carbon trade scheme was thrown into confusion on Thursday after several opposition lawmakers resigned their party positions and promised to ignore a deal to support the government's planned laws.
A day earlier, neighboring New Zealand passed their revised carbon trading laws, the second emissions trading scheme to win approval after Europe's began in 2005.