After nine months of covert negotiations, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have agreed to a joint plan to reduce carbon emissions in both China and the U.S.
The symbolic significance of this agreement cannot be denied. Together, the two countries emit almost half of the world’s greenhouse gases. Their willingness to work toward carbon reduction ahead of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris provides not only an example to fellow countries but also the one international partnership that can make or break climate action moving forward.
The major agreements between the nations involved the U.S. cutting carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025 (from 2005 levels) and China pledging to reach peak emissions by 2030, if not sooner. Xi also pledged that 20 percent of China’s energy would come from clean sources by this date. However, this leaves a palpable void between today’s commitments and the coming decade.
“Yes, I applaud that they’re taking real actions and addressing it,” economist Greg Wendt told Planet Experts. But, he noted, the agreement “leaves all kinds of room for us to go back to our business-as-usual and not change our behavior. These kind of proclamations, although important, have to be followed through by changing what we do on the court. It’s not unlike a New Year’s resolution.”
Wendt is a Senior Wealth Advisor at Stakeholders Capital and the founder of the Green Economy Think Tank. He pointed out that the U.S. still subsidizes fossil fuels to the tune of $540 billion a year. Globally, nations provide about $775 billion in annual subsidies to fossil fuels, and that’s a conservative estimate. With that kind of encouragement, there is little motivation for the industry to change its heavy-emissions practices.
While Wendt remains optimistic about yesterday’s announcement, he underlined the importance of who will actually be required to cut emissions. A recent study revealed that less than 100 companies are responsible for most of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution. How those companies (only seven of which are not involved in the fossil fuel industry) adapt (or not) will ultimately decide how successful the U.S. and China agreement will be.
“How can we make this an industry-driven process?” said Wendt. “And how can the private sector and individuals like you and me do what the government cannot?”
At present, the U.S. government is itself diametrically opposed to President Obama’s environmental plans. Presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has said his top priority is “to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.”
Addressing yesterday’s agreement between Presidents Xi and Obama, McConnell called it an “unrealistic plan” that Obama will “dump on his successor.”
“Our economy can’t take the president’s ideological war on coal that will increase the squeeze on middle-class families and struggling miners,” McConnell said in a statement minutes after the announcement of the bi-lateral deal.
Hailing from the nation’s third-biggest coal producing state, McConnell intends to unravel the EPA’s historic carbon reduction plan, which would affect some 600 coal-powered plants across the nation in its attempt to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. His party swept both the House and the Senate in last week’s mid-term elections, and are now on the warpath to fight Obama’s recent climate initiatives. Even before yesterday’s announcement, China was planning on implementing a nationwide cap-and-trade program by 2016, something that would be impossible to legislate in America’s current political climate.
Still, if the leaders of the U.S. and China can drum up enough support for their climate action plans, public opinion might sway Republicans. Penn State University’s Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and the director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, Dr. Michael Mann, sees promise in the Obama-Xi partnership.
“In my view, this is a very good agreement,” he said in an email to Planet Experts. But Mann is not celebrating just yet.
“It’s important to recognize what action would be required to meet those targets,” he said. “To achieve the very aggressive reductions outlined by the president, we would need to begin acting immediately to reduce carbon emissions, incentivize clean energy, etc. The President’s already-announced clean power plan combined with tighter fuel efficiency standards should help pave the way forward.”
In addition to a military accord that will keep U.S. and Chinese forces at peace off China’s coasts, yesterday’s agreement also involves a series of environmental initiatives:
- Expanding funding for clean energy research at the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, established in 2009.
- The launch of a pilot project in China to study carbon capture and sequestration.
- Further limiting the use of hydroflourocarbons, potent greenhouse gases that contribute about 0.5 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year.
- A federal framework that will allow cities in both countries to share best practices for low-carbon economic growth and climate adaptation.