The world inched closer to an elusive deal to combat climate change yesterday, when China, the world's biggest polluter, made its most substantial commitment yet to curb its carbon emissions and invest in clean energy.
It was not a commitment in the sense of having any measurable element. More importantly, nor was it about reducing carbon emissions.
It was actually
the promise of a "notable" decrease in the carbon intensity of China's economy
Not even any ballpark numbers there, just 'notable'. As slip-through-the-fingers as Gordon Brown's assurance that the EU will - sting me with your numbers, Captain Prudence - pay its 'fair share' of funds to poorer countries suffering on the climate front line.
But the real bad boy is not the lack of solid figures, it's the phrase 'carbon intensity'. Just as industry uses 'emissions reduction' to mean not 'reduction' but 'a smaller increase than we might otherwise have had', so China and India are shifting our language from 'carbon emissions' to 'carbon intensity'.
'Carbon emissions' is the amount of carbon emitted. 'Carbon intensity' is the amount emitted per item manufactured or unit of economic activity.
Producing 10% less CO2 per thneed manufactured is fine until you ramp up production. Make twice as many thneeds and, even though emissions per thneed might have come down, total emissions go up.
The climate isn't looking at emissions per unit of GDP, it only looks at total emissions, so that's the only number that counts.
But we so desperately want China to be on side that we're accepting this bollocksy redefinition. In the same way, we're accept the American shift of language, talking of an agreement that will be 'politically binding' instead of 'legally binding' (as if there had been any agreement on what 'legally binding' was going to mean anyway).
It's rather like the way George Monbiot unpicked India's announcement that it will rapidly build 20GW of solar power cpapcity, equivalent to about a quarter of the UK's electricity production. It got praised as India taking climate change seriously, but, Monbiot noted,
India is also in the middle of a programme to increase coal capacity by 79GW – equivalent to the entire UK power sector – by 2012. The new solar plant will supplement, not substitute, its other forms of power generation.
An economy based on growth will increase total consumption and so rapidly eat up any carbon savings from reducing 'carbon intensity'. Basing any agreements on carbon intensity is a guarantee that we will not reduce carbon emissions.
It means we're more likely to get a deal everyone can sign up to, but when it's effectively designed to fail, what's the point? Making our deals palatable to the people who wish to exacerbate the problem we're trying to rein in is utterly insane.