The implications of the ‘historic’ US-China deal

Hot on the heels of the European Union’s pledge to cut total emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, the announcement on the 12th November of the climate agreement between China and the US – the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases – has been welcomed as “a historic milestone” and “a watershed moment for climate politics”. The praise, however, has been reserved for the political message rather than the unambitious climate commitments. The PBI looks through the implications of the US-China deal, particularly for the 2015 UN climate negotiations in Paris.

So, what are the actual pledges? On the US front, President Obama agreed to cut US carbon emissions by 26-28% by 2025 relative to 2005 levels. China on the other hand agreed to a ‘best effort’ to peak carbon emissions before 2030, and to increase its share of carbon-free energy to 20% by 2030.

It has been suggested by Climate Interactive and MIT that fulfilment of the commitments would keep approximately 640 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere. Whilst this may sound impressive, it would be far from sufficient to prevent temperatures from rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels (see this article by The Carbon Brief). It is also clear that this is a best-case scenario – fulfilment of the pledges on both sides.

Taking a look at US domestic politics, achievement of the goals on the US side is already looking unlikely. Congress, the US legislature, has won a large Republican majority, and a Politifact survey earlier this year that found only 8 out of 278 congressional Republicans had not expressed scepticism about climate change. The Senate, which controls the US budget, is expected to be lead from January by Mitch McConnell, who has described Obama’s climate plan as a “big-government boondoggle” and was reportedly “particularly distressed” by the US-China deal. Then of course there are the presidential elections due next year, in which the Republicans will hope to continue their mid-term election success.

As for the pledges from China, it is unknown exactly how high China’s emissions’ peak will be, so it is unclear how much CO2 China will be emitting by 2030. It has also been suggested that China’s emissions would peak by 2030 without government intervention. The same article from The Carbon Brief also criticises the aim to increase the share of carbon-free energy to 20% as unambitious, although it does note the comment from The Natural Resources Defense Council that the target is significant in terms of the global impact from such a huge economy.

With all these criticisms of the agreement, it is unsurprising that the commitments have been described as “the opening bids in the negotiations, rather than the final numbers”. Even if the actual agreement is less ambitious than it first appears, the nature of the agreement is hugely significant for international climate politics. In the anticipated run-up to the 2015 global negotiations on climate change in Paris, this agreement sends out the clear message that the world’s two largest emitters are willing to negotiate – in contrast to their approach at the 2009 UN summit in Copenhagen. By showing that they are willing to step forward and unite in this global challenge, it is hoped that the US-China deal will contribute to lessening the fearful and protectionist attitudes Members bring to the 2015 summit and give impetus to the desire for a successful agreement on tackling climate change.

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