Was the U.S.-China Climate Deal Worth the Wait?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Last week, Ann Carlson and Alex Wang, environmental experts at UCLA Law School, called the November 12 U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change "monumental." "No two countries are more important to tackling the problem than the largest carbon emitter over the past two centuries, the U.S., and the largest current emitter, China," they observed. The announcement—the outgrowth of bilateral discussions ongoing since the early days of the first Obama Administration—is likely to affect upcoming international negotiations, and, Carlson and Wang believe, could have "potentially profound domestic effects for both countries." We asked additional ChinaFile contributors whether the deal was worth the wait. —The Editors


Ann Carlson and Alex Wang are right to emphasize the domestic commitments of both the United States and China in the joint announcement on climate change, which was announced last week in Beijing. While not a formal agreement, this document reflects a meeting of the minds of the world’s two largest emitters. The two countries have committed to quite different actions as befits their very different stages of development, but they have both advanced considerably even since Copenhagen in 2009 in their ability to commit to actions for the rest of the decade and for what their likely emissions trajectory will be for decades beyond that.

Concretely, this means both recognize the importance of the 2-degree limit for total warming, that the U.S. commits to a trajectory that reduces total emissions by 83% by 2050 from a 2005 baseline, and that China commits to peaking its emissions by around 2030 and then reducing from there (i.e. not just peaking and staying at a high level). Both also commit to increasing ambition over time.

This is real progress, but we should not be surprised that the domestic work needed to be done first, and only then memorialized in this joint announcement. There is in fact a good deal of work in international relations that suggests that firm international commitments (hard law) do not necessarily lead to the most ambitious program. Work by Kenneth Abbott, Duncan Snidal, Barbara Koremenos and their various colleagues has found that softer agreements—and this joint announcement might be considered the softest of agreements—often allow countries to be more ambitious. Moreover, the lack of precision in the various commitments made at Copenhagen—their multiple form and varying definitions—may also have enabled more flexibility and experimentation.

The net result is that both countries have made progress. It has been painful and slow, but the Obama administration has established the level of ambition it could achieve with executive action and the types of reductions that result. At the same time the Chinese government now has a track record it is confident about in increasing energy efficiency and the use of non-fossil energy through its Five Year Planning process, and it now has information from multiple economic models as to what specific additional, ambitious policies will be needed to peak emissions.

These advances bode well for an international agreement. In the long run, to cement in major reductions, we do need a global agreement. These agreements always take longer than we wish. After all, on something as straightforward and specific as extremely toxic chemicals (the dirty dozen), it took 42 years from the publication of Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring to the entry into force of the Stockholm Convention, which controls chemicals like DDT (and the United States has yet to ratify it, despite controlling these chemicals domestically).

Climate change is so much more complicated than the dirty dozen that it seems unsurprising that we are still struggling with creating the right international instrument 22 years after the initial treaty.

The U.S. and China's coming to an accord augurs well for the upcoming meetings in Lima and Paris, but even these will be steps in a lengthier process. Is this ideal? Undoubtedly not. Faster action would give us more confidence that we could avert catastrophic climate change. Slower responses increase the risk that we will not act in time. Even without the worst-case scenario's coming to pass, a slower response will undoubtedly be more costly. But the fact that not only have these two countries moved forward, but that President Obama has also committed an additional $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, which supports adaptation to the climate change that is happening now in poor developing countries, suggests that we have passed another hurdle on our way to collective action on this very difficult challenge.

Although we do not yet know how significant the climate change agreement will ultimately prove to be—each side will have its own unique set of challenges in delivering its end of the bargain—it is gratifying to see the two countries finally coming together to wrestle with this daunting problem in a more collaborative way. If one looks for those areas where the U.S. and the P.R.C. have come to share compelling common interests, surely this is the most obvious. Indeed, one could even say that the common threat of climate change is every bit as menacing to both nations and societies as the Soviet Union was back in the early 1970s when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger got together with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to restore relations between Washington and Beijing.

The threat of global climate change has been a more difficult issue around which to galvanize the two nations not only because it is an incremental threat that does not immediately menace the territorial integrity of either, but because it is a problem far more difficult to personify. The threat of the “Russian bear,” as the Chinese were once fond of calling the USSR and with which they share a five thousand mile common border, had the ability to stir patriotic and nationalistic sentiment in a way that the threat of slowly rising green house gas levels, temperatures, and oceans does not. But such observations do not obviate the reality that climate change is every bit as menacing to the China and the U.S. as the Russians ever were, if not far more dangerous. And yet, despite the obviousness of the threat, the leaders of our two countries have been painfully slow in galvanizing themselves to this common challenge.



A Roadmap for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change

Asia Society

The world faces no greater challenge in the 21st century than arresting the rapidly increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that cause climate change. The two largest producers of these gases are the United States and China. Their cooperation is essential if...

In reading about the new U.S.-China agreement, I found myself reflecting back with a certain sense of nostalgic despair on an effort which our Center on U.S.-China Relations undertook with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change back in 2008-2009 under Amb. Richard Holbrooke’s tutelage as President Obama was just coming into office in 2008. Entitled, “A Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change: Common Challenge, Collaborative Response,” the report was co-chaired by Steven Chu, then Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (and soon to be Secretary of Energy) and John Thornton, Chairman of the Brookings Institution. A highly distinguished group of other participants provided input. The report warned:

That our planet is now approaching a point of no return on the question of global warming is increasingly self-evident. Recognition of the daunting challenges that such moments pose can be unsettling, even paralyzing. However, with bold leadership, they can also be galvanic.

It also cautioned:

It is unclear as yet whether the growing awareness of our tipping point moment will intersect in a timely manner with the new leadership that is now assuming office in Washington and the increasingly well-informed central leadership in Beijing to catalyze both countries toward mustering the necessary clarity of vision, intellectual resources, funding, technology, and international cooperation. What is clear, however, is that we are in uncharted waters that will beg an unprecedented effort from both the world at large and the United States and China in particular. For whether we choose to recognize it or not, these two countries are both crucial in the effort to address climate change. Simply put, if these two countries cannot find ways to bridge the long-standing divide on this issue, there will literally be no solution.

And there was, of course, no solution. Like so many other effors to sound the tocsin and rally Washington and Beijing to action, the results of our effort over the next five years were discouragingly meager.

Because the need for such collaboration has only increased since then, it is good to see the two Presidents—each constrained, to be sure, by powerful forces—finally now making a new symbolic effort to circle their collective wagons around this important issue. Sadly, this “roadmap” exhumed from the past still has relevance. The analysis of the common problem it offered and its recommendations for a common pathway forward are still timely. As Sun Yat-sen once famously observed, “To know is easy, and to act is difficult.” Indeed!

The U.S.-China climate announcement marks a new era of U.S.-China cooperation. While U.S.-China cooperation related to energy and climate change has been going on for decades, the Obama Administration can be credited with elevating the status that climate change has received in the bilateral relationship, similar to what we called for in the Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change. In the midst of preparations for Copenhagen in 2009, the United States and China launched several new clean energy agreements that have allowed for a broad expansion of the bilateral channels for discussing energy and climate issues. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s added attention to the issue beginning in 2013 reinvigorated cooperation and launched a high-level Climate Change Working Group that helped facilitate the negotiations that led to the announcement.

While both countries had been hinting at what their next round of climate targets would look like for several months, the timing was even more of a surprise than the content of the agreement. The Paris climate talks are still over a year away, so announcing targets this early—rather than holding out until the last possible minute when all cards were on the table—is extremely constructive. As a result, these announcements could have global reverberations. Certainly not all countries have the power to change the international dynamic with unilateral or bilateral commitments, but due to the role of China and the United States as the largest emitters in the world, there is no doubt that the other major economies are carefully considering these announcements.

The climate announcements by the United States and China mark a major departure from previous climate targets for both countries. This is the first time China has officially announced an emissions peak, which will require an absolute emissions target, as opposed to an intensity-based target as we saw China pledge in Copenhagen and codify in its 12th Five-Year Plan. China’s announcement that its emissions will peak by 2030 or earlier is on the earlier side of when recent modeling studies out of both the U.S. and China have demonstrated that an emissions peak could occur.

Meeting these targets will not be easy. China has already begun to reveal the outlines of its own domestic strategy to address climate change. Seven pilot cap-and-trade programs are under development, which are laying the groundwork for a national program slated to launch in 2016. The 12th Five-Year Plan period has brought about a notable shift away from fossil energy and toward non-fossil energy in the building of new plants, with additions to non-fossil energy capacity surpassing fossil energy installations for the first time in 2013. Achieving an emissions peak is dependent on coal use also peaking likely several years in advance of any CO2 peak. A peak in coal use will need to come from stringent caps on coal consumption, along with the continued expansion of low carbon energy sources. There will be real constraints to further building out large dams in China, so hydropower (currently the largest source of non-fossil energy in China) will need to be supplemented by wind, solar, and nuclear power.

While overshadowed by the targets, other aspects of the joint announcement could play an important role in furthering research, development and demonstration of key low-carbon energy technologies. A new agreement to launch a large-scale geologic carbon sequestration project in China could be a major step towards commercializing carbon capture and storage technologies. In addition, the extension and expansion of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), arguably the most expansive bilateral cooperation initiative to date, is a welcome announcement.

There is no doubt that the joint climate announcement is a truly significant moment in U.S.-China cooperation. While there is certainly far more needed in the way of action from all countries to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the global climate system, the agreement is a welcome first step and a constructive move away from the rhetoric that has impeded the international climate negotiations for far too long.