One Cheer for the Climate Deal

The landmark deal won’t cut China’s emissions for more than a decade, and it’s going to be tough for the U.S. to meet its requirements. But it's a good start.

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

Historic. Landmark. Game changer. These are the weighty descriptors being used to analyze the climate change deal that the United States and China announced this week during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing. It’s a good start, but the media’s breathless reaction might be wishful thinking.

The deal, which took most observers by surprise, commits China to reducing greenhouse gas emissions after a peak in 2030 (and ideally sooner). China will also get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources, like solar, wind, nuclear, and hydro, by 2030. The United States, for its part, has committed to slashing emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025.

China and the United States are the world’s two largest emitters of climate-altering pollutants. For more than a decade, the two countries had failed to reach any significant agreement to halt greenhouse gas emissions. So, in a sense, if everything China and the United States agreed to this week comes to pass, it will indeed be significant. But the agreement won’t be sufficient by itself to solve the world’s warming problem, and it faces challenges and presents loopholes for both of the signatories. In the end, real progress on stopping climate change will rely not just on Beijing and Washington, but on the rest of the world.

From China’s perspective, the deal looks smart. "The leader of China is killing three birds with one stone," said Matthew Kahn, an environmental studies professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. First, Chinese President Xi Jinping is showing the rest of the world that his country can be a leader on climate change, the global issue of ultimate importance. Second, a move away from coal — now a crucial source of China’s winter heating and electricity — will help the country combat the notorious smog problem that has galvanized political protests and threatens to drive some of China’s most talented citizens, not to mention foreigners, away. And third, says Kahn, climate change mitigation is "creating a new export market for China," as Chinese-made solar panels and wind turbines head to fields and roofs around the world.

There’s little question that smog pushed China into the deal. Five years ago, at the international climate change summit in Copenhagen, Chinese leaders dug in their heels and demanded that the rich world cut emissions first and offer aid to developing countries to help them catch up. But because pollution has worsened over the major cities in eastern China over the past few years, creating an international embarrassment in addition to domestic health concerns, fixing the country’s miserable air quality has moved to the top of the political agenda. (Even Xi admitted to checking a pollution monitor every morning.) The good news for international environmentalists is that the smog problem and the climate change problem share the same solution: reducing use of fossil fuels, especially coal.

There’s more good news in the deal for Beijing, too: the leadership may find it relatively easy to meet its end of the deal. Thanks largely to the smog, China’s economy has already started shifting away from dirty coal in recent years. (Although everything’s relative: 79 percent of China’s electricity still comes from coal, and the Chinese are still building new coal-powered plants, even as they shut down old, highly polluting ones.) Natural gas, which burns far more cleanly than coal, is a chief replacement, which is why the Chinese government has been eager to ink big-ticket gas import deals with Russia recently. So Beijing’s 2030 emissions-cutting goals may be simply a target that the Chinese are already on a trajectory to hit. Similarly, China is already ramping up on wind and solar power as fast as it can, as well as — more controversially — hydropower and nuclear power.

That doesn’t mean reaching the goals will be easy. Questions remain: What will China’s 2030 peak be? And will the country be able to cut emissions sooner? Even if China shifts from coal to natural gas, that alone will not be enough for the climate. The United States, after all, made something of a similar shift, diversifying its power generation from coal and hydro into natural gas and nuclear starting in the 1950s. Yet 60 years later, thanks to the massive size of the U.S. economy, the country still gets 45 percent of its electric power from coal and must cut emissions further. The United States has also run into another problem: Natural gas leaks result in emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. China will likely face the same methane problem as it moves toward natural gas. In other words, getting rid of coal is not a climate panacea, especially if it’s accompanied by voracious economic growth.

It may be easier for China to achieve its targets than the United States, and not just because it’s easier to reach a peak than it is to make a cut. China’s command-and-control political system can make big things happen — and faster — than the United States’ messy democracy. "China’s political system is more nimble at getting green things done," said Kahn. For example, he said, mayors will start taking environmental problems seriously because the central government is starting to evaluate them on their respective city’s energy intensity (output per energy used), as opposed to simply economic productivity and degree of civil unrest. And mayors want to keep Beijing happy.

The United States, on the other hand, faces a tough struggle to achieve its goals set out in the deal. As Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in a Nov. 11 New York Times op-ed, for the United States to stay on pace, it must cut its carbon emissions twice as quickly between 2020 and 2025 as between 2005 and 2020. (It’s always easier to put hard things off until tomorrow.) And as I’ve written before, there are no guarantees in the U.S. political system that climate policies will outlast the president who implements them — especially if they require further cuts.

If a Republican takes the White House in 2016, he or she could reverse or revise the executive orders that form the core of Obama’s climate push. And it’s going to be a hard fight even before the election: Republicans in Congress, newly empowered after recapturing the Senate this month, are already vowing to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, is already plotting a way out of the U.S.-China deal. He immediately described it as a "non-binding charade." He also vowed to do "everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations." Inhofe has limited direct leverage over the EPA, but the Senate could withhold appropriations to the agency.

But the deal’s biggest impact may very well be outside either the United States or China. The pact will succeed if it encourages the rest of the world to follow suit and slash emissions ahead of a big international climate summit in Paris next year. "I think it is going to change the whole mood of the Paris conference," said Daniel Gardner, a history professor and China expert at Smith College.

Kerry shares that hope. "[W]e are encouraging other countries to put forward their own ambitious emissions reduction targets soon and to overcome traditional divisions so we can conclude a strong global climate agreement in 2015," he wrote in his op-ed. Indeed, the crucial question is whether other country will follow suit. Five years ago, at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, China was one of the staunchest defenders of the rich-world-first theory of climate change. Beijing’s flip could influence other developing countries. But India, the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas contributor, has shown little interest in adopting new climate policies, saying that alleviating poverty should be the country’s first priority. "What cuts?" the Indian environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, told the New York Times in September. "That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away."

It may be easier for other countries to join the climate fight if the United States and China go first. That’s because, as Kahn points out, the United States, China, the European Union, and other early actors can show how greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced without flattening the economy. Will China’s cap-and-trade schemes work better? Or Europe’s? Or California’s? Will American coal-plant regulations result in emissions cuts without harming the economy? If China and the United States seem set to meet the emissions targets set out in the new deal and are still able to deliver prosperity to their citizens, even the Indians may be convinced that it’s possible.

But more importantly, the United States and China have just offered the world moral leadership. The fact that the globe’s two largest emitters are serious about climate change and are working together, despite heightened political tensions in other areas, to solve a problem that affects the entire world may just prove inspiring. Now, onward to Paris.

Kate Galbraith is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy and climate issues. She is co-author of The Great Texas Wind Rush, and her work has appeared in the Texas Tribune, the New York Times, and the Economist.  Twitter: @kategalbraith