Commentary

The US-China breakthrough

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Photo : Flickr

At the APEC Summit in Australia two weeks ago the US and China made a surprise joint announcement that marks a significant and positive shift in the two countries’ relationship and could improve the prospects of a successful global deal in Paris next year.

The US for its part agreed to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China agreed to increase the non-fossil fuel share of all energy to around 20 percent and that its emissions would peak by around 2030. The two countries also announced that they plan to ramp up cooperation on a number of other initiatives including expanding clean energy R&D, promotion of green trade, demonstration of carbon capture and storage and the launch of a low-carbon cities initiative.

The US-China deal, following in the wake of the recent EU climate and energy package, means that the emissions trajectory of more than half of the world will be significantly altered. While the pledges taken on their own are not nearly enough to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees, there are at least two reasons why the US and China might have just made a good deal in Paris a great deal more likely.

First, these are not easy targets for either country

In recognition of the current political gridlock, the US has gone out of its way to ensure that its target can be met without any new legislation from Congress. But it will need to double the pace of emission reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average from 2005-2020 to 2.3-2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025.  Meeting the higher end of the 26-28 percent target would put the US on a trajectory to achieve 80 percent reductions by 2050.

If China’s emissions are to peak by around 2030 it will require installing 800-1,000 gigawatts of zero emission generation capacity – more than the amount of coal-fired power plants in China today and roughly the current electricity generation capacity in the United States.  

Analysis suggests that these targets are achievable, but only with improvements on the current emissions trajectories of both countries. Although the pledges are not sufficient from a scientific standpoint, crucially both countries are aiming to go above and beyond their existing commitments.

Second, China can’t be used as an excuse for inaction   

Politicians in developed countries including the US have often justified a lack of domestic effort by pointing fingers at China.

This claim did not hold water even before the new agreement. China had already committed to reducing its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent and to growing its share of non-fossil energy to 15% by 2020. Climate change features prominently in the 12th Five Year Plan and the country is the world’s largest investor in clean energy, having spent $56.3 billion on renewable projects in 2013. China has 7 pilot emissions trading schemes and plans to introduce a national system by 2016.

The new announcement of a peak year for its emissions removes any doubt that China is prepared to do its fair share, taking away one of the key talking points used by opponents of climate action.

A big step towards a global agreement

Despite some claims to the contrary, the Paris deal is not yet done and it must go beyond the voluntary mitigation pledges already announced. Many other details will need to be ironed out including on adaptation, loss and damage, and the inclusion of a strong review mechanism to allow countries to strengthen their commitments in line with scientific evidence.

In order to be credible, Paris cannot just be a “G2” agreement between the US and China – it has to be inclusive. Developing countries must come away from the negotiations believing that the agreement represents a robust effort towards managing the climate risks they already face and that will continue to increase in the future.

The US and China have shown they understand that addressing climate change is both in their national interests and is critical for maintaining global stability. They should now continue their cooperation in Lima and beyond to achieve an outcome that works for the world’s most vulnerable countries.

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