The U.S. and China have reached a landmark agreement to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the coming decades. The deal was announced last week by President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a joint press conference in Beijing after months of secret negotiations between the two administrations. The U.S. and China are the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases and together account for around 45% of global emissions annually.
A note on the science and why this matters
Greenhouse gases, which include carbon dioxide and methane, absorb and re-emit infrared heat radiation from the sun. Consequently, the accumulation of these gases in the atmosphere “at a rate 100 times greater than that of volcanic eruptions” is causing global warming and ocean acidification. According to the scientists’ dialogue on CCNF, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has cycled back and forth between ~180 ppm during ice ages and around ~280 ppm during warm periods for millions of years. We are currently at or near the peak of a warm period in this long-term cycle (the concentration was 280 ppm before the industrial revolution), but have now raised the CO2 concentration to 400 ppm in the geological blink of an eye, and we are steadily increasing these greenhouse gas concentrations year by year. The full implications of this one-time, “large-scale geophysical experiment” on the biosphere have only begun to manifest themselves and will last for many, many generations.
The Climate Pact
Regarding the “agreement”: It should be emphasized that it is not a treaty, which would require approval by Senate Republicans, but rather, a joint “statement of intentions” on new non-binding targets for each country, which could very well be reneged by the next President or overturned by a piece of future legislation that passes a veto.
As for the Chinese, the pledge that around “20% of energy will come from no fossil fuels” presents them with a herculean task, though perhaps one they were already inclined to take given the extreme levels of smog pollution in their cities. The sources of these biologically unhealthy pollutants are the same coal plants, refineries, manufacturing facilities, and combustion-powered vehicular traffic that comprise the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. These levels of “old school” pollution are so bad, that in anticipation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit where the climate pact was announced, authorities in Beijing actually shut down a large portion of the region’s economy, halved the city’s vehicular traffic for ten days, and declared a six-day holiday for government workers and students ahead of the conference to allow the smog to dissipate for the visiting dignitaries.
Here’s a breakdown of the new climate deal, followed by some commentary by various media outlets and policymakers.
(See fact sheet on the agreement released by the White House press office.)
The U.S. Pledge: The U.S. will reduce its annual emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. This calls for a doubling of the annual average reductions of 1.2% during the 2005-2020 period to 2.3-2.8% during the 2020-2025 period. Apparently, this puts the U.S. on a path to achieve an 80% reduction below 2005 levels by 2050.
The China Pledge: China will peak its annual emissions “around 2030″, and try to peak them earlier, and increase the non-fossil fuel share of its energy to “around 20%” by 2030.
Commentary on the U.S. side of the bargain
Brad Plumer on Vox:
“This is a new and significant extension of the Obama administration’s existing goal to reduce emissions 17 percent by 2020.
The biggest question here is whether US policymakers will actually follow through on this pledge. The country’s carbon-dioxide emissions are currently 10 percent below 2005 levels, but they’ve started to rise again as of late. The US Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules to curb emissions from existing power plants, but that’s unlikely to be enough to achieve a 28 percent cut. So where will additional policies come from? Note that Congress is deadlocked on climate, with many Republicans furious about this new deal.”
Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations:
“[The new target] is a mighty demanding goal. It will be particularly challenging to meet using existing legal authority – which the administration says can be done. It’s also worth observing is that achieving these goals will almost certainly require changes to the implementation of the EPA power plant regulations. This would be particularly true if the automobile fuel economy rules are relaxed when they’re reviewed in a few years.”
House Speaker John Boehner (from New Republic article):
“[The agreement] is the latest example of the president’s crusade against affordable, reliable energy that is already hurting jobs and squeezing middle-class families.”
Commentary on the Chinese side of the bargain
Senator Mitch McConnel (from New Republic article):
“I [am] particularly distressed by the deal… [I]t requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years, while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states across the country.”
Brad Plumer on Vox:
“Critics will argue that China’s target is vague (it leaves out the crucial question of what level emissions will peak at) and not ambitious enough. And, yes, a few experts had been predicting China’s emissions would peak around 2030 anyway. On the other hand, a 2030 peak was never a sure bet. And China had long refused to set a deadline here.
This is a real shift in stance, even if it’s not legally binding. On top of that, China’s pledge to get 20 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2030 is genuinely audacious. “It will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.” That’s staggering — and it remains to be seen if China can actually do all that.”
Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University, in an interview by the PBS Newshour:
“For China, it’s ambitious. There’s no doubt about it. But China has shown an ability to move quickly on energy. Over the last 10 or 15 years, they have taken over the global production of photovoltaic cell solar energy and they have taken over virtually the global production of wind turbines. And in that way, they have helped other countries, particularly Germany, drive down their own emissions because they have been able to sell these products cheaply. So they can make a decision, and then they can implement it. So I have no doubt that if this remains a political priority, China will be able to meet this goal. … For China, this is going to be tougher than it is for the U.S.”
Joe Rago, editorial board member for the Wall Street Journal, in an interview by WSJ.com:
“The deal implies no change whatsoever in Chinese behavior. They are essentially agreeing to do what they are already planning to do anyway… They say by 2030 [they] are going to peak our carbon emissions, but energy consumption in China is already headed down that path due to demographics, urbanization, and trends. The idea that they have agreed to some kind of major reformation is silly.”
Raymond Pierrehumber in MotherJones:
“Under the US-China bilateral agreement, the Chinese emission target is phrased very differently from the US target, but with regard to slaying the exponential dragon, it is probably the most important part of the deal. The Chinese commitment is not a commitment to any specific value of emissions but rather a commitment that the country’s emissions will peak by 2030, and thereafter will not increase. The deal does not specify whether and by how much emissions will decrease after 2030, but the significance is that China is committed to get off its exponential emissions track by 2030.”
General commentary on the deal
Dr. Michael Oppenheimer on PBS Newshour:
“This is huge, as far as I’m concerned. And there are basically three reasons.
One [is] the science. The science tells us that to have a chance of avoiding the climate danger zone, we have got to get the world’s emissions turned around — that is, going down, instead of going up — some time in the 2020 to 2030 time span. The Chinese benchmark here of 2030 is consistent with that objective.
The second reason is that if you get China and the U.S. in the room, you have about 45 percent of global greenhouse, global warming emissions. If you add in the E.U., which is already on the downward direction in terms of emissions, you have got about 60 percent of the emissions. Think about the leadership factor involved in that. Other countries will have a harder time avoiding dealing with climate change with the three 800-pound gorillas together.
And the third reason is if China in particular is going to do this, and also the U.S., they’re going to have to go big into the renewable energy markets, where they have already staked out a position. That is going to help expand the markets, bring down the price of renewable energy, make it easier for everybody else to do this.”
Joe Rago on WSJ.com:
“Already the administration in the name of climate purity has imposed the most expensive regulations in American history and I think that trend is only just beginning.
[Why would the President commit to a deal that would raise prices on American businesses and consumers and asks nothing of China?] You make that deal if you are Barack Obama. This is a legacy item for him…
[What about the evidence of climate change? Does [President Obama] have a justification because the oceans are rising and the glaciers are melting?] Look, there is plenty of evidence about modest warming and the human role in it so far. Where there isn’t a lot of evidence is the tremendous cost necessary to de-carbonize the economy will in anyway justifiy the benefits. What you really want to do here is pay attention to it, monitor it over time, but these problems decades from now are something that can be handled by a richer, wealthier society that is better able to adapt and change to whatever mother nature throws our way.”
Raymond Pierrehumber in MotherJones:
“By what yardstick should the “bigness” of the deal be measured? This brings us to the concept of carbon budgets. The excess CO2 we put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, or natural gas is removed very slowly by ocean uptake and other geological processes. As a result, a significant portion of the CO2 we emit each year will still be in the atmosphere 10,000 years from now. We must get off the exponential curve, otherwise we are doomed to be on the Impossible Hamster track. … So yes, getting China off the exponential curve is a very, very big deal indeed”
Brad Plumer on Vox:
“Is this deal enough to solve climate change? No. For starters, both the United States and China actually need to achieve their stated emissions goals. That won’t be easy for either country, but it could prove especially difficult for the US, which needs to make deep cuts in the next decade. And the current GOP-dominated Congress is opposed to any sort of action on greenhouse-gas emissions.
It’s also debatable whether either pledge is sufficient to avoid drastic levels of global warming — particularly if China lets its emissions keep rising until 2030. Some analyses have suggested that China’s emissions would need to peak around 2025 to meet its goal of preventing more than 2°C (3.6°F) of global warming. (The White House said it thinks China can peak earlier, particularly if it meets that ambitious clean-energy target. But that’s far from certain.) More crucially, this deal only includes two nations. As climate modeler Chris Hope points out, this deal in isolation still puts the world on course for a likely 3.8°C (6.8°F) rise in temperatures by 2100. “These pledges are only the first step on a very long road,” he concludes. For the time being, however, this is a significant shift in climate politics — and possibly a first step toward a broader global climate agreement.”
As noted in CCNF’s coverage of the UN Climate Week talks back in September, China had alluded to a possible peak in emissions before. Questions remain on whether both countries will come through on their new pledges and how, but as the world’s two largest emitters, cooperation between U.S. and China is absolutely essential to the success of any global effort to cut emissions at levels that actually reduce future warming and mitigate the risk of a large-scale warming response and subsequent climate destabilization. For those hoping for a meaningful global accord at the UNFCCC conference in Paris late next year, the new climate pact is a promising development.