Criticism and Praise for U.S.-China Climate Deal

Following the announcement yesterday of a “game-changing” bilateral U.S.-China agreement on carbon emission reductions, politicians, climate experts—as well as some avowed non-experts—are weighing in. While the announcement, the result of 9 months of secret negotiations between the Xi and Obama administrations, shows that the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters are willing to work together on global warming, the New York Times’ notes one question the Chinese pledge to achieve a peaking of CO2 emissions by 2030 has raised among experts: it doesn’t go far enough. Edward Wong reports:

Many scientists have said that 2030 may be too long to wait for China’s to stop growing, if the world is to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above the preindustrial average. That goal was adopted by governments from around the world at talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

[…] Some experts said that China should try to halt the growth of its emissions much sooner than it has pledged, by 2025 rather than 2030.

“Based on China’s current coal consumption numbers, they can do much more,” Mr. Li [Shuo of Greenpeace East Asia] said on Wednesday. He said of the pledges made on Wednesday that “this should be the floor on which they work, rather than a ceiling.”

[…] Internally, Chinese scientists and officials have been crunching data to try to pinpoint when carbon emissions will peak and how high that peak will be, given current economic growth projections and energy policies, but their estimates have varied. Foreign scientists and policy makers are also trying to judge whether Mr. Xi’s 2030 pledge represents a genuine campaign by the Chinese government to fight , or just a business-as-usual date when emissions would probably have leveled off anyway. [Source]

A post from Quartz’s Heather Timmons reports that the Chinese pledge represents the trajectory Beijing was already on regarding CO2 emissions amid mounting public concerns over air pollution:

Pinpointing a 2030 target for peak carbon emissions is definitely a first for China. But, as several China scribes pointed out, it isn’t exactly a stretch. In fact, 2030 is when analysts expected China’s emissions to peak anyway, even before Xi’s new energy policy announced this June: […]

[…] Beijing has recently shown it is serious about cleaning up its emissions by strengthening environmental laws, toughening regulations, and stepping up oversight of factories and power plants. The tough new stance comes as choking in cities like Beijing and rising health problems have led to widespread public outrage. Some sort of carbon cap from China has been anticipated for months. [Source]

In Washington, the majority of criticism seems to be coming from some of the same Republican lawmakers that have repeatedly reminded the public that they are not climate change experts. From Suzanne Goldenberg, Lenore Taylor, and Tania Branigan at The Guardian:

Republicans in the US Congress reacted strongly against the deal on Wednesday. The party already held a majority in the House of Representatives, and the midterm elections last week also delivered them control of the Senate, where the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said Obama would not be in the White House long enough to see the plan through.

[…] In his first meeting with the incoming Republican majority, McConnell, who represents the coal state of Kentucky, said he was “distressed” at the deal, adding that the diplomatic breakthrough would have no effect on his disdain for international climate negotiations.

[…] The Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, also attacked the deal, and suggested he would move legislation to further limit Obama’s ability to deliver the carbon pollution cuts he promised.

[…] Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican and climate denier who is poised to take over the Senate environment and public works committee in January, said China’s end of the bargain was just a ploy to buy time. [Source]

Republican backlash could prove a serious hindrance to President Obama’s announced goals. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment Michael Levi notes that new legislation will be essential in hitting stated targets:

The U.S. target looks like it’s going to be really tough to meet without new laws.The promised to cut emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to try to get to a 28 percent cut. (Notice a pattern – baseline and stretch goals – between the and China?) If the hits its current target – 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 – on the head, it will need to cut emissions by 2.3-2.8 percent annually between 2020 and 2025, a much faster pace than what’s being targeted through 2020. That is a mighty demanding goal. It will be particularly challenging to meet using existing legal authority – which the administration says can be done.

My understanding is that the numbers were arrived at through careful bottom-up analysis of the U.S. economy and of legal authorities over an extended period of time. But technically possible and politically likely are two different standards. […] [Source]

While the announcement caused unsurprising partisan turbulence in Washington, commentators on both sides of the Pacific see in it positive prospects for international climate diplomacy. ChinaDialogue has published China’s National Center for Climate Change deputy director Zou Ji’s analysis:

First, its political importance is no small matter. It has taken into account political realities and possibilities and is acceptable to both parties. Given that, solutions can be sought for all practical issues that subsequently arise.

Second, the US is the world’s largest developed country, and the biggest emitter among those countries. China is the biggest developing emitter. This China-US agreement sets a good example to both developed and developing countries and sets the tone for the 2015 Paris talks. If China-US cooperation boosts multilateral global governance and ensures widespread participation and joint action, it will have a wide-reaching impact on the global low-carbon transition.

Third, the joint statement will invigorate bilateral relations. It points the way to the creation of new economic and trade growth and a new round of prosperity. It’s not just that China and the US need to tackle climate change jointly, China’s restructuring cannot happen without the US, and US restructuring and low-carbon transition cannot happen without China. The two parties need to make their own transitions, and in doing so promote global economic change.

Fourth, when compared with the earlier China-US climate-change consensus, the joint statement opens new fields up to cooperation. […] [Source]

In an op-ed for the New York Times, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry echoes sentiment from both those who feel more should be done, and those who see this as a milestone in climate diplomacy:

[…] There is no question that all of us will need to do more to push toward the de-carbonization of the global economy. But in climate , as in life, you have to start at the beginning, and this breakthrough marks a fresh beginning. Two countries regarded for 20 years as the leaders of opposing camps in climate negotiations – have come together to find common ground, determined to make lasting progress on an unprecedented global challenge. Let’s ensure that this is the first step toward a world that is more prosperous and more secure. [Source]

ChinaDialogue’s Sam Geall outlined the announcement and offered reflection on Twitter:

Also see analysis from The Atlantic’s James Fallows, and collections of expert reactions from the New York Times and from ChinaDialogue.