The presidents of the world's two most polluting nations agree: something should be done about climate change. And they're just the leaders to do it, per the terms of what President Barack Obama called a "historic agreement" announced November 12 between the U.S. and China. Although neither country has plans to stop burning coal or oil in the near future, both countries now have commitments to reduce the greenhouse gases that result.
"As the world's two largest economies, energy consumers and emitters of greenhouse gases, we have a special responsibility to lead the global effort against climate change," said Obama in a joint press conference with President Xi Jinping, wrapping up a visit to Beijing that included the joint effort on climate change.
The U.S. will double the speed of its current pollution reduction trajectory, which has seen carbon dioxide emissions fall roughly 10 percent below 2005 levels to date. The country will now aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. That's in addition to the 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels due by 2020 and shows the kind of five-year planning the U.S. would like to see adopted in international plans to combat climate change. In other words, ever-increasing ambition in reduction targets delivered every five years. "This is an ambitious goal, but it is an achievable goal," Obama said. "It puts us on a path to achieving the deep emissions reductions by advanced economies that the scientific community says is necessary to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change."
Although Chinese leaders are quite fond of five-year plans, their new climate version would not begin until "around 2030," under the terms of the new agreement. That is when the country's CO2 pollution will peak, advancing the Chinese war on pollution onto the invisible front. The nation will also "strive" to reach that peak even sooner. Just as Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli pledged at the United Nations in September "to peak total CO2 pollution as soon as possible," now Xi has followed through in November with the first agreed-on date to cap its global warming pollution by 2030.
The problem is coal, which currently provides more than 70 percent of the energy the fast-developing nation uses. Hundreds of new coal-burning power plants account for how China surpassed the U.S. in the past decade as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But already several Chinese cities and provinces are experimenting with the kind of capitalist solutions favored by U.S. free marketeers—cap-and-trade programs that in some cases even extend to cover public transportation and buildings themselves. These programs are pilots and may be scaled up for a national program expected in coming years or scrapped in favor of some new national plan or carbon tax. "China has plans for a national market and one that is the most ambitious in the world," says Barbara Finamore, Asia director at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council and longtime Beijing resident. "It would dwarf any other carbon market in the world."
More importantly perhaps, the Chinese central government has begun to talk about a cap on coal-burning itself. Statistics show that this year coal use in China slowed for the first time this century, dropping by around 1 percent, according to Greenpeace International. The hopeful sign suggests that peak coal use could come within the next decade or so, although this dip could also be a result of slowing economic growth rather than proactive efforts to slow climate change. But peak coal use is exactly what the Chinese have agreed to ensure now, along with cuts in CO2 intensity by 2020. Already China's National Development and Reform Commission has laid out a plan to cope with climate change through the end of the decade.
That means building even more nuclear power plants, wind farms, hydroelectric dams and even to start employing more solar power, of which the country installed 12 gigawatts-worth in 2013. In fact, in 2013 more new clean energy sources were added to the grid in China than fossil fuel-fired power—for the first time ever. China has added several hundred gigawatts-worth of such clean energy—the Three Gorges Dam alone pumps out 22 gigawatts— but hopes to add as much as 1,000 gigawatts of these low-carbon emitting sources by 2030. That would constitute 20 percent of its energy—and roughly the total amount of all electricity produced in the U.S. or all the coal-fired power plants China has built in the last few decades. It's also double what the Chinese have committed to achieve by 2015 in their current Five-Year Plan.
China is already the world leader in new nuclear and new renewable energy sources, and the energy intensity of its economy dropped by more than 19 percent between 2006 and 2010. But this week’s commitment will require an acceleration in these already fast-paced transition efforts.
At the same time, the U.S. and China will continue to collaborate on developing the kind of CO2 capture and storage (CCS) that could help clean coal-burning for power plants but also industry, such as steel and cement-making. That change will come through increased funding to the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center—one of the fruits of the last deal between the two countries in 2009—and at least one "large-scale pilot project." This project will not rely on flushing more oil out of the ground with the CO2 to be buried, as U.S. CCS projects have done, but rather serve as a bid to help solve China's water crisis by using CO2 to produce fresh water from an underground saltwater aquifer. The project is expected to "inject one million tons of CO2 and create approximately 1.4 million cubic meters of freshwater per year," a major technological advance if achieved.
Trade will also play a role: The tariff agreement signed this week by the two countries may also extend to green goods in the future, such as more energy-efficient and resilient building materials. After all, how China builds out its cities in the next few decades will lock in either highly polluting energy for decades—or not.
Already, conventional air pollution like smog is driving change in China, including the mandated shutdown of factories and driving restrictions around Beijing in recent days in a bid to clear the air for world leaders. "Air pollution has become one of the most important issues facing China today, both for social stability and also international reputation," Finamore notes. "They are beginning to decouple coal use and economic growth."
Cleaner air could also come in the form of converting coal to gas or liquids at giant chemical plants before burning it, which would help reduce smog but exacerbate CO2 pollution. Or it could come in the form of CCS, nuclear and renewables. "There is real potential for shifting of coal use in China from most polluted regions inland, which is why a national cap on coal consumption that's mandatory is so important," Finamore says, adding that it's a "real possibility."
The agreement between the two countries that together emit more than 40 percent of global CO2 pollution suggests a strong deal will be signed by the world's nations in Paris in 2015, under the terms of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, unlike Copenhagen in 2009. Prior to that meeting China and the U.S. pledged to cooperate but made no firm commitments to reduce pollution, resulting in the last-minute hullabaloo to salvage international efforts known as the Copenhagen Accord.
This weeks’ agreement does not mean, however, that the problem of climate change is solved. The U.S. and China are still on pace to add billions of metric tons of CO2 pollution each year into the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the world has already put into the atmosphere about half the carbon it can to avoid more than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, and time is running out. Already, global average temperatures are up nearly 1 degree C and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have touched 400 parts-per-million for the first time since Homo sapiens sapiens walked on Earth.
The 28 nations of the European Union have pledged to cut greenhouse gas pollution by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, which means, including this new agreement, the countries responsible for more than half of the world's emissions now have plans to cut it. But other major polluters such as Australia, Canada and Japan have all fallen back in their efforts to curb global warming pollution. Australia's pollution jumped after it repealed its carbon tax this year; Canada has repudiated its prior commitment to reduce pollution under the current international global warming agreement; and Japan's pollution has swelled as it burns more natural gas and coal to produce electricity to replace that generated by the nuclear reactors shuttered in the wake of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. There is no guarantee that the U.S. or China might not also see similar setbacks on the road to less CO2, particularly given the climate denial politics that are rampant in the U.S. Congress and China's imperative to deliver continued economic growth or its history of gaming international carbon markets.
And a new major polluter—India—has arrived on the scene. In hoping to repeat China's development success it will burn more and more coal. Just as China has accounted for the bulk of rapidly rising climate-changing pollution in the first decades of the 21st century, India could soon take over driving that growth. But there is hope in the form of cleaner energy sources. New Prime Minister Narendra Modi is "very engaged on renewables and solar power to electrify and provide energy access in India to hundreds of millions who don't have it," says Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute, an environmental group.
Plus, the new agreement is nowhere near ambitious enough to meet the reduction targets laid out in the most recent report of the IPCC. No country or league of countries—not even the E.U.—is on track to reduce pollution enough. Policy modeler Chris Hope of the University of Cambridge fed the new commitments plus the E.U. effort into a computer model under the assumption that other countries would continue to allow pollution to grow. He came out with "less than a 1 percent chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures below the iconic 2 [degree C] level in 2100. Most likely the rise will be about 3.8 [degrees C]." In other words, more needs to be done and China's level of striving to reach peak pollution before 2030 will prove crucial.
The world still has a long way to go to combat climate change and even this new inadequate agreement will require some tough, perhaps impossible, efforts from the U.S. and China. "We're nowhere near the world we need to be in to achieve our most ambitious climate goals," says Valerie Karplus, director of the Tsinghua-M.I.T. China Energy and Climate Project. "We need to recognize that reality and think where do we go from here."
But just as John Kerry did when he was the lone U.S. senator to hold a press conference back in Copenhagen in 2009 stressing the importance of this issue, as Secretary of State in 2013 and 2014 has pressed the issue of combating climate change with his Chinese counterparts. As a result, the U.S. and China have now begun to show that it just might be possible for the nations of the world to stop global warming for the first time since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in the 1990s. As Obama also said in his joint press conference with Xi: "When we work together, it's good for the United States, it's good for China and it is good for the world."