China, US clinch deal to curb emissions, boost clean energy

13 November 2014

In a landmark announcement on Wednesday, China and the US unveiled a joint plan to cut emissions, including new post-2020 climate targets for both economies.

China indicated its carbon emissions will peak around 2030 and that it would try to achieve this before that time. In conjunction, the country would also scale-up the share of non-fossil fuels in the energy mix to around 20 percent in the same period. For its part, the US will seek to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, which will double the pace of current pollution mitigation efforts.

The news was unveiled at a press conference held by Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama in Beijing, China. 

“[The US and China] have a critical role to play in combating global climate change, one of the greatest threats facing humanity. The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good,” the two leaders said in a joint statement, which also listed a series of commitments to ramp up cooperation around clean energy technology.

The announcement paid homage to the latest warnings from UN climate scientists. Earlier this month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called for a 40 to 70 percent drop in emissions in the next forty years in order to avoid far-ranging climate consequences, including rising sea levels, floods and droughts, and ecosystem damage. (See BioRes, 4 November 2014)

Wednesday’s joint statement also recognised, however, that prompt climate action could drive innovation and sustainable development. The two leaders signalled that the announcement was geared towards injecting momentum into efforts by nearly 200 nations to secure a global emissions-cutting deal by the end of next year in Paris, France.

The move came after months of quiet negotiations between the two economic giants, although hints of a rapprochement on the climate subject were given ahead of the announcement, including by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Obama is currently in the midst of an Asia-Pacific tour that will culminate in a meeting of leaders of the world’s largest advanced and emerging economies this weekend in Brisbane, Australia. Climate change has been a tricky subject on the G-20 agenda, with the US and EU nations among those lobbying hard to address it more comprehensively, a move allegedly resisted by the Australian presidency.

Ramping up cooperation

In Wednesday’s announcement, China and the US also agreed to strengthen joint institutions and vehicles for cooperation in the areas of climate change and clean energy to help achieve the newly-outlined targets. These include further work through the US-China Climate Change Working Group (CCWG), a body set up in April of last year, and a joint Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC).

Both countries agreed to extend the CERC’s mandate for an additional five years through to 2020, with renewed funding for existing research tracks, focused on building efficiency; clean vehicles; and advanced coal technologies with carbon capture, use, and sequestration. The launch of a new programme studying the interaction between water and energy was also announced.

The US will also undertake a number of additional projects to promote China’s energy efficiency and renewables goals, including further cooperation on “smart grids” geared towards the cost-effective integration of renewable energy technology.

Enhanced technological cooperation to phase out hydroflurocarbons (HFCs), a particularly potent greenhouse gas, is called for, building on an agreement by the two leaders in June last year. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 June 2013)

Mention is also made of a bid to promote trade in green energy goods, with several trade missions focused on green infrastructure, environmental trade sectors, and technology scheduled for the coming years.

China and the US are some of the biggest renewable energy investors, accounting for some US$56 billion and US$36 billion respectively out of a total US$214 billion invested worldwide in 2013, according to a joint report released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, and the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance.

Compare and contrast

As the world’s top two carbon emitters, Beijing and Washington’s climate policies have been closely watched by other capitals around the world.

“[In] climate diplomacy, as in life, you have to start at the beginning, and this breakthrough marks a fresh beginning,” Kerry wrote in an op-ed on Wednesday for The New York Times. 

 A number of climate experts have long insisted that movement from the two sides holds the key to reaching a climate deal.

“This will help get other countries on board and greatly improves the odds for a solid global deal next year in Paris,” said Bob Perciasepe, president of the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, a US-based advocacy group.

The global climate talks are being conducted under the banner of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the next annual meeting set to kick off in less than three weeks in Lima, Peru. At that meet, countries are hoping to agree to the draft elements of the 2015 deal, along with the information that should be included in national contributions to the overall package, with the updated draft texts for this purpose recently released. (See BioRes, 29 October 2014)

Obama on Wednesday signalled that the US would submit its new 2025 target as part of its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) no later than next March following the timeline agreed to at the 2013 UN talks in Warsaw, Poland. The new target represents an acceleration on the 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels he announced in 2009.

The news that China will cap emissions has been long-awaited in the climate community, eager to see Beijing consolidate efforts to rein in breakneck economic growth, which has come with a high environmental price tag.

China’s bid to boost sustainable energy as laid out on Wednesday will require the deployment of an additional 800-1000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar, and other clean energy sources, more than the total produced by the country’s current coal-fired plants. 

As reactions began to emerge on Wednesday, many commentators welcomed the move by the two economies to lay their cards on the table ahead of the Lima meet, though others expressed reservations.

“Also positive that China is ready to commit to a peak year. But ‘around 2030’ is very late – will the 2 degrees still be possible?” said former EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard on social media site Twitter, referring to the temperature increase from pre-industrial levels that is being used as a benchmark ceiling for global warming.

Hedegaard was in office until just weeks ago, and was heavily involved in the formulation of the 28-nation bloc’s latest climate and energy framework, which includes a 40 percent emissions cut from 1990 levels by 2030. (See BioRes, 27 October 2014)

Some environmental groups have also expressed concern that China’s clean energy target was not sufficiently ambitious, pointing to studies that the country is already on track to produce 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the end of this decade.

“Today’s announcements should only be the floor and not the ceiling of enhanced actions,” said Li Shuo, senior climate and energy campaigner for environmental activist group Greenpeace’s East Asia branch, calling for further efforts.

Other commentators said that while a “G-2” climate push was critical for success in Paris, intensive negotiations over the next year would have to go beyond emissions reduction pledges, to address details such as finance, collective ambition, legal form, and adaptation.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration may face political pushback at home to the new US target. Mitch McConnell, who will likely be the next Senate majority leader after Republicans won control of both chambers of the US Congress in last week’s mid-term elections, said the move was “unrealistic” and tantamount to an “ideological war on coal.”

Next week will see climate delegates gather in Berlin, Germany for a meeting dedicated to making pledges to a UN climate fund geared towards helping developing countries transition to low-carbon growth models. Capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund with at least US$10 billion has been slated as another crucial success factor for the Lima talks.

ICTSD reporting; “US and China Reach Climate Deal After Months of Talks,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11 November 2014; “China and US in deal to curb emissions,” THE FINANCIAL TIMES, 12 November 2014; “United States and China reach landmark emissions deal – live,” THE GUARDIAN, 12 November 2014; “Kerry: U.S., China should set example by agreeing on climate goals,” REUTERS, 4 November 2014; “G20: Australia resists international call supporting climate change fund,” THE GUARDIAN, 7 November 2014. 

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