Reading Between the Lines on the US-China Climate Agreement

Obama and Xi JinpingAs noted on this blog yesterday, at the close of the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Beijing, President Obama and President Xi Jinping issued a joint US-China “announcement” on climate change.  The United States announced that it intends to achieve economy-wide emissions reductions of 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, while China for the first time announced its intention to commit to peaking its CO2 emissions by 2030 and to increase its share of renewable energy consumption to “around 20%” by 2030.  This agreement between the two countries has been described variously as a landmark agreement, a gamechanger, and historic.  But is the agreement really all it is cracked up to be?

First of all, some commentators have opined that the agreement’s targets are simply not ambitious enough. For instance, climate scientist Kevin Tyndall recently expressed to chinadialogue that if we wanted even a reasonable chance of achieving the goal laid out in Copenhagen of limiting global temperature increases to 2C, China’s GHG emissions would have to peak at least as early as the mid-2020’s. Second, even if the United States and China are able to meet the targets set out in the agreement, enormous challenges would remain.  By 2030, the GHG emissions of the two countries would account for over half of the carbon budget that would give us a 50-50 chance of staying within the 2C goal.  This would leave little room for rising economies such as India and Brazil to continue to grow. Third, some have noted that this agreement does not amount to much because it largely reflects what the US and China are already doing anyway.  A Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst told the Daily Beast that “the commitment on the U.S. side is a summation of a variety of commitments that have already been made.”  Morever, three years ago the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had already predicted that due to a variety of factors, China’s GHG emissions would peak by 2030.  And finally, the agreement is lacking in detail, but what detail it does contain has been a cause for alarm for some environmentalists. While renewable energy is mentioned only once in the agreement, the promotion of carbon capture and sequestration and advanced coal technologies is featured prominently, mentioned no less than six times.  The agreement also promotes the increased use of shale gas without mentioning control of methane, which, according to the director of Food and Water Watch, simply amounts to “more promotion of fracking under the guise of climate action.”

Nevertheless, despite the agreement’s limitations, it still provides much cause for optimism.  Indeed, it represents the first time the world’s two largest GHG emitters have publicly expressed a willingness to cooperate on climate change. As Secretary of State John Kerry noted, the United States and China must cooperate on joint efforts to reduce GHG emissions – otherwise, there is simply no hope of solving this problem.  Besides this symbolic importance of the agreement, it also includes some practical bilateral measures that are encouraging, such as expanding the US-China Joint Clean Energy Research Center, enhancing cooperation on phasing out HFCs, jointly launching a new initiative on Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities, and promoting trade in green goods.

Perhaps most importantly, the willingness of the two largest economies and two China-deal-638x532largest GHG emitters on the planet to come together to announce action on climate sets a good example for both developed and developing countries.  According to Zou Ji, deputy director of China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy, this agreement will set the tone for the 2015 Paris climate negotiations and as such, could have “wide-reaching impacts on the global low-carbon transition.”  By one estimation (see graph), if developing countries were to follow China’s lead and developed countries were to follow the United States’ lead, we could slash global carbon emissions from the “business as usual scenario” by an enormous 2500 billion tons by the end of the century. The fact that these two countries have stated publicly their intention to act on climate change essentially leaves no excuse for others to not take action.  Now let us hope that they are serious.