A New Hope for the Recent US-China Climate Deal?

The past several years have not been kind to those seeking responsible action on global warming and climate change.

The American cap-and-trade bill was stalled and murdered, the Australians repealed their innovative carbon tax, and warming denialism has slowly infected a good portion of the West. And still, the ‘ghosts’ of the unsuccessful Copenhagen talks hang heavy over environmentalists and policy-makers alike. Not the best signs for those of us wishing to see the international community step up and take responsibility for solving one of the defining issues of our generation.

Fortunately, our luck appears to be changing.

The United States and China just announced a modest, albeit very important, bilateral agreement to reduce their respective carbon emissions. Surprisingly, despite being the product of months of back-door talks between the two states, the agreement is relatively simple. The US promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by at least 26 per cent (compared to its 2005 levels) by 2025. China pledged to cap its GHG emissions by 2030 or earlier if possible. Additionally, they promised to increase their use of energy from zero-emission sources to 20 per cent by 2030.

Image courtesy of US Embassy The Hague, ©2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of US Embassy The Hague, ©2014, some rights reserved.

This recent agreement is a very positive change, but let me be clear, it is certainly far from perfect. Recent analysis has raised several concerns regarding the deal, showing that the fight to mitigate the worst of warming is far from settled.

Cynics have been quick to point out the most obvious issue with the agreement; it is a non-binding pledge.  With no enforcement mechanism there is no guarantee that either country will achieve the agreed-to reductions. Disregarding China, it is not even clear whether the US will be able to meet its targets due to the risk of domestic political interference. The recent Republican sweep of the midterm elections has thrown roadblocks in the way of the Obama administration’s efforts to dramatically reduce its emissions. Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, has led the way voicing discontent with the US-China deal, as he claims that he has been particularly “distressed” with it. Unfortunately, the new majority has the ability to tie Obama’s hands if he seeks to craft and implement concrete policies to reach the required reductions. The new Republican Congress will certainly block any legislation aimed at reducing emissions and McConnell has made reining in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) one of his top priorities. Republicans are also likely to continue pushing policies that will actively hurt the ability of the US to reduce its emissions such as the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is practically destined to pass under the authority of the incoming Congress.

Another issue concerns the content of the agreement. While an important first step, many have isolated the unaggressive nature of the agreement. If there is any hope of preventing global temperatures from rising over two degrees, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) insists is necessary, then both the US and China will have to make further cuts. For example, it is argued that the US itself would need to reduce its emissions to at least 50-60 per cent below 1990 levels. This criticism also begs the question of what roles the rest of the world must play. Collectively, the US and China make up less then half of global emissions. Even if they both met their targets and pledged further cuts, the rest of the world would still need to make significant reductions. It is crucial that polluters like India and Australia also work to curb their emissions.

The good news is that despite the weaknesses of the deal it has set an incredibly positive tone for future international efforts at mitigating the worst impacts of warming.

Skeptics are right in some of their claims. The deal alone is not enough to solve global warming. International action is needed, and the US and China will have to make further cuts. Yet, it is an important and responsible first step. And the modest emissions reductions hide a deeper truth of the difficulty of shifting to greener technology. For instance, while China’s responsibility to transition 20 per cent of its energy use to zero-emissions technology seems small, in reality, the move will require ‘an additional 800-1,000 gigwatts of…zero-emission generation capacity…more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.’ [1] Despite the modest numbers, the deal mandates some pretty large shifts.

The deal also has a degree of symbolic importance. Put simply, it represents the overcoming of the most difficult hurdle that has consistently plagued international climate action. Historically, the lack of US-Sino cooperation has been the silver bullet that killed any attempt at effective change. The US would tank international initiatives and justify it with China’s refusal to cooperate. Now, the two largest emitters have taken bilateral action and shown that a tumultuous history does not have to necessarily block meaningful international action. This has put pressure on other developing nations, such as India, who now must choose to either craft their own reduction plans or risk becoming black sheep in the international community. The combination of symbolic change and increased pressure has built a great deal of momentum leading up to the Paris talks in 2015.

Even though the past several years have appeared grim, the future of addressing global warming and climate change looks bright. While clearly not perfect, the recent US-China deal has set a positive benchmark for the rest of the world and shown that that international community can arrive at fair agreements that benefit the environment without undercutting anyone in particular. Paired with the European Union’s recent decision to further cut its emissions by 2030, and multiple states committing to future carbon taxes, it finally seems like the globe is collectively taking responsible action.


[1] The White House, “FACT SHEET: U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation”, The White House, 11 November 2014. Accessed 20/11/14. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/11/fact-sheet-us-china-joint-announcement-climate-change-and-clean-energy-c