The Buzz

Did China and America Just Save the Planet? Breaking Down the Big Climate Announcement

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping surprised even the closest climate watchers last night when they jointly announced new emissions-cutting goals for the United States and China. This is a serious diplomatic breakthrough after years of unsuccessful efforts to do something big and joint that goes beyond clean energy cooperation and gets to one of the most sensitive parts of climate policy. What it ultimately means for emissions, of course, will be determined over many years.

What exactly is the significance of the news? It will take time (and fleshing out of details) to fully assess the two countries’ proposals. But there are already three big takeaways that can be discerned.

China is now approaching international climate diplomacy differently from – and more constructively than – before:

The Chinese announcement promises to peak emissions “around” 2030 and to try to beat that deadline. It also articulates a goal of boosting non-fossil energy to twenty percent of Chinese fuel. People will pore over these numbers (and I’ll say something about them below). But perhaps the most striking thing about them is simply that they’re genuinely new. In 2009, when China announced a goal of cutting emissions intensity by 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, many analysts (myself included) noted that they contained no ambition to move beyond “business as usual” estimates for future Chinese emissions. Not this time around: for China to peak its emissions by 2030, it would need to depart significantly from the path that most analysts currently expect. That alone is a big deal.

The way that the Chinese goals were developed and announced, though, is as important as their substance.

China has typically gone out of its way to assert its independence in anything climate-related. That approach would usually have led it to announce major goals like these in a clearly unilateral context – even if they were developed in tandem with the United States. Rolling them out together with the United States says that China is increasingly comfortable being seen to act as part of an international effort.

Indeed that may be part of the point here. Xi appears at least somewhat sensitive to historical patterns of conflict between established and rising powers. Amidst broad tensions between the United States and China, climate change is increasingly an area of relatively constructive dialogue, which makes it worth highlighting. A joint announcement does exactly that.

One also has to wonder what domestic dynamics are at work here. One plausible theory for why Xi made the announcement in an international context is that the transformations he seeks in order to achieve Chinese climate goals are also ones he wants to pursue for other economic, environmental, or strategic reasons anyhow (for example, reducing local air pollution). Making a firm and international commitment to this can strengthen his hand against those at home who oppose such moves.

The U.S. target looks like it’s going to be really tough to meet without new laws:

The United States promised to cut emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to try to get to a 28 percent cut. (Notice a pattern – baseline and stretch goals – between the United States and China?) If the United States hits its current target – 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 – on the head, it will need to cut emissions by 2.3-2.8 percent annually between 2020 and 2025, a much faster pace than what’s being targeted through 2020. That is a mighty demanding goal. It will be particularly challenging to meet using existing legal authority – which the administration says can be done.

My understanding is that the numbers were arrived at through careful bottom-up analysis of the U.S. economy and of legal authorities over an extended period of time. But technically possible and politically likely are two different standards. One useful point of comparison is the Waxman-Markey legislation. That bill would have required a 30 percent emissions cut by 2025, but a large slice (perhaps more than half) of the reduction was expected to be met through international offsets. The new targets thus far exceed Waxman-Markey in domestic ambition.

That doesn’t prove, of course, that the new targets will be tough to meet; the world has changed a lot in the last five years. So let’s drill down on some details.