Joint U.S.-China Agreement on Climate Change a “Game-Changer”

Just before hosting a joint press conference following meetings in Beijing, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama made a surprise announcement of an ambitious bilateral agreement on climate change. The agreement had been reached after nine months of private negotiations and calls on both countries to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in coming years. Specifically, according to the agreement:

The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%. China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030. Both sides intend to continue to work to increase ambition over time. [Source]

Mark Landler at the New York Times reports:

The landmark agreement, jointly announced here by President Obama and President Xi Jinping, includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions by the United States and a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.

Administration officials said the agreement, which was worked out quietly between the United States and China over nine months and included a letter from Mr. Obama to Mr. Xi proposing a joint approach, could galvanize efforts to negotiate a new global climate agreement by 2015.

[…] A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder. [Source]

For Mother Jones, Tim McDonnell and James West look at the significance of the agreement:

This is the first time such a policy has come from the very top, President Xi Jinping. Previously, the first and only mention of “peaking” came from Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli at the UN climate talks in New York in September.

“This is clearly a sign of the seriousness and the importance the Chinese government is giving to this issue,” said Barbara Finamore, Asia director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental advocacy group, in an interview from Hong Kong. “The relationship [between the US and China] is tricky, but climate has been one of the areas where the two sides can and are finding common ground.”

The announcement also sets the stage for conflict with the Senate’s new Republican leadership, which just today signaled that attacking Obama’s climate initiatives will be a top priority in 2015. [Source]

The announcement was generally met with enthusiasm from environmentalists, though some pointed out that China’s goals of having emissions peak in 2030 had already been predicted regardless of the agreement.

In the Atlantic, James Fallows writes up his notes of why he believes the agreement could be significant:

Before we have all the details, here is the simple guide to why this could be very important.

1) To have spent any time in China is to recognize that environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability. Even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related. […]

You can go on for quite a while with a political system like China’s, as it keeps demonstrating now in its 65th year. But when children are developing lung cancer, when people in the capital city are on average dying five years too early because of air pollution, when water and agricultural soil and food supplies are increasingly poisoned, a system just won’t last. The Chinese Communist Party itself has recognized this, in shifting in the past three years from pollution-denialism to a “we’re on your side to clean things up!” official stance.

Analytically these pollution emergencies are distinct from carbon-emission issues. But in practical terms pro-environmental steps by China are likely to help with both. [Source]

Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been aiming to secure a global pact to reduce carbon emissions during his tenure, explains the potential long-term impact of the new agreement in today’s New York Times:

The Chinese targets also represent a major advance. For the first time China is announcing a peak year for its carbon emissions – around 2030 – along with a commitment to try to reach the peak earlier. That matters because over the past 15 years, China has accounted for roughly 60 percent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions world-wide. We are confident that China can and will reach peak emissions before 2030, in light of President Xi’s commitments to restructure the economy, dramatically reduce air pollution and stimulate an energy revolution.

China is also announcing today that it would expand the share of total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources (renewable and nuclear energy) to around 20 percent by 2030, sending a powerful signal to investors and energy markets around the world and helping accelerate the global transition to clean-energy economies. To meet its goal, China will need to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other renewable generation capacity by 2030 – an enormous amount, about the same as all the coal-fired power plants in China today, and nearly as much as the total electricity generation capacity of the United States. [Source]

Responses on Twitter were swift and generally cautiously optimistic:

Read more about the challenges China faces in reducing carbon emissions, the country’s efforts to fight climate change, and previous joint efforts between China and the U.S. to help the environment.