Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Paris 2015 or Bust! The Historic US-China Climate Deal

Is it just me, or is Pres. Obama having a very, very good week at the APEC summit? Despite the many obstacles before him outlined by my colleague Colin earlier this week, Pres. Obama has – in a very short period of time, at a summit where rhetoric usually substitutes for action – reached several important deals with Chinese premier Xi Jinping: visas between the two countries were given much longer lifespans, tariffs on high-tech devices were lowered, military confrontations are to be avoided, and now a historic deal on climate change has been reached. Not bad for a president with a lame duck congress at home and a Republican-controlled congress on the horizon.

The announcement today that the US and China had reached a deal on climate change has been met with much fanfare, and with good reason. The US essentially agreed to double its cuts in emissions, reducing emissions by 26-28% by 2025 from 2005 levels. China, for its part, agreed that it would reach “peak emissions” by 2030, a date it was previously unwilling to state publicly, and use at least 20% zero-emission energy by 2030 as well. While these measures will not reverse the pace of climate change, they may in fact help the world to avoid a worst-case scenario of 4 degree Celsius temperature rises by 2100 (i.e. environmental catastrophe, if not apocalypse).

It is also a welcome development in US-China relations, which have been stymied by Chinese aggressions against US allies in the East and South China seas as well as disputes over human rights practices in China. In the past decades, neither world power has been willing to come to the table and compromise on emissions reductions, despite being the world’s top two carbon emitters by far. Yet if either the US or China would not sign onto a climate deal, then whatever the other agreed to cut would barely have an effect. Experts are hopeful (if cautiously so) that this could mark the beginning of the two most influential powers on earth working together to reverse a trend that could lead to unmitigated disaster for both of them (not to mention the rest of the world).

China itself is much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than the US, which has helped to shift its policy from climate change denial to acceptance and attempts at amelioration in the past decade. In the words of The Atlantic’s James Fallows, "when children are developing lung cancer, when people in the capital city are on average dying five years too early because of air pollution, when water and agricultural soil and food supplies are increasingly poisoned, a system just won't last. Though repression and corruption certainly pose threats to the sustainability of the Chinese system, climate change above all has the power to upend the entire organization of the country.

The success or failure of this deal will not be seen for years, but Secretary of State John Kerry expressed optimism in a New York Times op-ed today. While acknowledging that the deal does not by any means fully address climate change, Secretary Kerry argues that “in climate diplomacy, as in life, you have to start at the beginning, and this breakthrough marks a fresh beginning.” A Republican-controlled Congress (not to mention two or three future presidents) will control the fate of this new beginning in its first months and years. As climate change negotiations continue in Lima, Peru next month, and culminate in Paris in 2015, the world will be watching for any signal that the US government is not as good as its word. If the agreement is not met with significant legislative or executive policies to begin implementation by 2015, then Paris may be a repeat of Copenhagen, which was a repeat of Kyoto, which was  a prime example a bunch of countries coming together on an issue without meaningful results.

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