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New U.S.-China Climate Deal Is a Game Changer

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

    Pete Souza / White House

In what may prove to be a watershed moment in the fight against climate change, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced from Beijing on Wednesday that they are pursuing ambitious new greenhouse gas emission reductions.

China and the U.S. are the world's two largest emitters of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane, and their cooperation is absolutely essential to the success of any global effort to scale back emissions and avert catastrophic climate change.

According to a statement from the White House press office, the U.S. will reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, with "best efforts" to hit the higher end of that range. China will have its CO2 emissions peak around 2030, "make best efforts to peak early," and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy portfolio to "around" 20 percent by 2030. You might notice a lot of wiggle room in that language. There's more. The White House release refers to these goals as statements of "intent." They don't promise or even "agree" to hit these targets, they merely "intend" to.

That may sound a little weak, but it's necessary. Remember, foreign treaties require approval from a two-thirds supermajority of the U.S. Senate before they can be ratified. There's no way Senate Republicans would vote for an emission-reduction treaty. But by merely jointly announcing with China their intentions, the Obama administration avoids signing an actual treaty. So the Senate can't formally stop this agreement.

Both administrations have their work cut out for them. As The Washington Post observes, "to meet its target, the United States will need to double the pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average from 2005 to 2020 to 2.3 to 2.8 percent per year between 2020 and 2025." And for China: "It must add 800 to 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 the total electricity generation capacity in the United States."

At first glance, it may sound unfair that China does not have to start actually reducing its emissions yet while the U.S. has to reduce emissions even more steeply than it has already planned. That's certainly what Republicans will say.         
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