Why The U.S.-China CO2 Deal Is An Energy, Climate, And Political Gamechanger

by Joe Romm Posted on November 12, 2014 at 5:01 pm

CREDIT: Shutterstock

The historic new U.S.-China climate deal changes the trajectory of global carbon pollution emissions, greatly boosting the chances for a global deal in Paris in 2015. The deal would keep, cumulatively, some 640 billion tons of CO2 emissions out of the air this century, according to brand new analysis by Climate Interactive and MIT, using their C-ROADS model.

The U.S.-China deal is truly a gamechanger. In fact, you could make a strong case that prior to this deal, neither the U.S. or China were seriously in the game of trying to stave off climate catastrophe. Now both countries are.

When you add the recent European Union (EU) pledge to cut total emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, we now have countries representing more than half of all global emissions making serious commitments — and that in turn puts pressure on every other country. If the developing countries were to all follow China’s lead, and the non-EU developed countries follow ours, a 2015 global deal would slash carbon pollution this century by a whopping 2500 billion tons of CO2 (see figure below).

The Chinese commitment to more than double carbon-free electricity generation is also a gamechanger. It guarantees that the recent explosive growth — and amazing price drops — experienced by renewables like solar and wind will continue for decades to come. And that means the long-predicted ascendance of carbon-free energy has now begun in earnest.

Finally, the political implications of this deal can’t be overstated. Conservatives have been attacking EPA climate standards as government over-reach that supposedly harms the U.S. economy, while assuring us over and over and over again that the world’s biggest polluter (China) won’t act. That attack has not merely been rendered impotent. Now efforts to stop EPA can clearly be seen for what they really are — an effort to kill any deal with China and stop the nations of the world from coming together to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Thanks to this deal, any politician who says the U.S. can’t meet EPA carbon pollution standards is saying that the U.S. can’t deploy even a fraction of the carbon-free electricity the Chinese just told the entire world they are going to build in the next 15 years!

Underscoring the bilateral deal’s importance, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself joined Obama in the U.S.-China Joint Announcement that “China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early.” That by itself is a political game changer, which eviscerates the right-wing mantra of delay: “China will never act and so nothing we do matters.”

No doubt you’re shocked, shocked to learn the leader of the Senate do-nothing caucus, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has already said he is “particularly distressed” by this deal because it supposedly “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.” Not!

In fact, Melanie Hart, the Director for China Policy at the Center for American Progress, explains, “The pattern of major energy price reforms already underway in China demonstrates they are already doing the hard work needed to make this [peak] happen.” The Chinese have already started to work toward a CO2 peak, which is no surprise since this deal will require them to take massive action — hence, their other game-changing commitment to “increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.”

This energy pledge alone “will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar, and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”

This pledge is a statement to the world by China that renewables are ready to ramp up sharply! By itself, this pledge ensures that the ascendance of carbon-free energy over fossil fuels is irreversible. No wonder the pro-pollution crowd is “particularly distressed”!

Adding to their distress, Obama announced “a new target to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.” That roughly doubles the rate of decline Obama has committed the country to with his previous target of a 17 percent cut by 2020.

CREDIT: White House

This is a challenging target under existing law and doubly so given the anti-science makeup of the incoming Congress. It sets up the next Congressional session and the 2016 Presidential election as an epic battle between the forces who want to avert climate catastrophe and those who want to keep the fossil fuel Ponzi scheme going an extra decade or two — even if it means ruining a livable climate for our children and grandchildren and for centuries to come!

Ironically, in post-election analysis on Fox News last week, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said of the President:

“I think the one item he could negotiate, and I’m serious about this, climate change. That’s the one where if we and China could agree it would make a difference…. If he gets an agreement with China, which he won’t, but that’s the one area it would be historic.”

It’s worth noting that the U.S. commitment is for a cut in greenhouse gas emissions, which includes CO2 and methane. That means it is even more crucial than ever we correctly account for methane leaks, so that we are actually meeting this new target and not just replacing easy-to-measure CO2 emissions from coal with hard-to-measure methane emissions from natural gas production. Also, since Russian gas is leakier than ours, China should pledge to help Russia sharply reduce their leaks.

Bottom Line: The U.S.-China deal greatly increases the chance of a global agreement in Paris next December that shifts the world close to an emissions path that can stabilize CO2 levels and keep total warming as close to 2°C (3.6°F) as possible. It ensures that carbon-free energy will be the dominant new energy source in the coming decades. Climate activists certainly share in this achievement, but will need continued vigilance. The anti-science forces in this country have already lined up against it, and the road to actual stabilization at non-dangerous CO2 levels is a very long one.


A Major Breakthrough on Climate Change


President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China on Wednesday at a joint news conference. Credit Feng Li/Getty Images

November 12, 2014


The deal jointly announced in Beijing by President Obama and China’s president, Xi Jinping, to limit greenhouse gases well beyond their earlier pledges is both a major diplomatic breakthrough and — assuming both sides can carry out their promises — an enormously positive step in the uncertain battle against climate change. The announcement provided the high point of a surprisingly productive trip that also resulted in steps to cut tariffs on information technology products, extend visas and strengthen military contacts to build trust and avoid confrontations in the South China Sea. But the two countries have major differences, including over cybersecurity and human rights.


The climate accord represents a startling turnaround after years of futile efforts to cooperate in a meaningful way on global warming. It sends two critically important messages, one to the world and the other to the United States Congress. China and the United States together account for about 45 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Their new commitments are thus almost certain to energize other countries to set more ambitious targets of their own before negotiators meet to frame a new global agreement at the climate summit meeting in Paris in December 2015.


In the United States, the agreement cuts the ground from under people like Mitch McConnell, the next Senate majority leader, and others who have long argued that there is no point in taking aggressive steps against greenhouse gases as long as major developing countries refused to do likewise. This argument effectively undermined Senate support for ratification of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The climate deniers in Congress will find other reasons to oppose a strong climate strategy, and are doing so even now. But the “China” argument has effectively disappeared.


The most striking aspect of China’s commitment is its agreement to a hard cap on emissions. It pledged for the first time to have its emissions “peak” by 2030 and sooner if possible.
Until now, China has spoken only about reducing carbon “intensity,” which really meant allowing emissions to rise but at a slower rate. In the race to head off the unacceptable consequences of climate change, the name of the game is to stop emissions from rising at some point and then bend the curve downward. China has now committed itself to that path.


China has also set itself the daunting but not unobtainable goal of increasing the share of non-fossil fuel energy to one-fifth of the country’s energy mix in the next 15 years. This, too, is no small deal. By one estimate, this would mean adding 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission power generating capacity, roughly equivalent to China’s current coal-fired capacity.


The task Mr. Obama has set for the United States is also formidable, especially given the political obstacles. At the Copenhagen climate summit meeting in 2009, Mr. Obama pledged to reduce emissions in the United States by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. America is thought to be more than halfway there now, in part because of greatly increased automobile efficiency, the switch to natural gas and the closing down of some old coal-fired power plants and a prolonged recession.


He now pledges an ambitious 26 percent cut below 2005 levels by 2025. This will mean, at an absolute minimum, following through on his proposals to limits emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants — proposals that have already generated significant pushback. And it almost certainly will require cuts in emissions other than carbon dioxide, including methane leaks from the production and transmission of natural gas, as well as continued investment in alternative, non-fossil fuels. And as much of this as possible should be accomplished or set in motion before Mr. Obama leaves office.


For Mr. Obama, the meetings were a demonstration that the new Asia-focused policy he announced in three years ago can yield real substance. For Mr. Xi, they were a chance to show leadership and calm tensions with neighboring countries that have been alarmed by his aggressive, even dangerous regional policies. The United States and China remain serious competitors on many fronts, pushing rival free trade pacts and jousting for regional influence. But the leaders have shown that productive cooperation is possible; their task now is to keep it going.


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