Barack Obama

U.S.- China Climate Deal—Less Than Meets the Eye?


Obama Xi

Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a "joint announcement on climate change" in which each country made pledges about how they intend to handle future emissions of their greenhouse gas emissions. Mother Jones hailed the announcement as a "game-changer." Maybe not.

From the announcement:

Today, the Presidents of the United States and China announced their respective post-2020 actions on climate change, recognizing that these actions are part of the longer range effort to transition to low-carbon economies, mindful of the global temperature goal of 2?. The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%. China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030. Both sides intend to continue to work to increase ambition over time.

The crucial word here is "intends."

Reuters gets it right when its analysis declares that the "China climate statement is no breakthrough." From Reuters:

In the joint announcement, the United States gave its intention to cut economy-wide emissions 26-28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025.

The baseline, scale and timing of the reductions are essentially the same as those proposed in the Clean Power Plan, published by the Environmental Protection Agency in June.

In return, China announced that it intends to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions no later than 2030 and to increase the share of non-fossil fuels to around 20 percent of primary energy consumption.

China has a long-standing strategy to increase the share of zero-emission resources in national electricity generation at the expense of fossil fuels, especially coal.

China's government has been discussing an energy and climate strategy based on emissions peaking in either 2025 or 2030; the joint announcement opts for the later target, which is easier to achieve.

The joint announcement employs language very carefully. Throughout, the operative word is "intend" or "intention", which makes clear the statement is not meant to create any new obligations.

China's 2030 emissions target is set in terms of a date but says nothing about the level at which emissions will peak.

The joint announcement also reaffirms "the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances" enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Under China's interpretation of that principle, countries that were rich and developed in 1992 must cut their emissions, while countries that were then poor are not required to do so.

So at what level might China's emissions peak? Assuming the recent 3 percent annual increase in China's carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions continues for the next 16 years, emissions would reach 16 gigatonnes by 2030. If the economy continued to grow at 7 percent per year, that would imply an increase in carbon intensity (GDP per ton of emissions) of more than 60 percent.

In 2005, the U.S. emitted the equivalent of 7.26 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. So cutting emissions by 28 percent by 2025 implies emissions of 5.23 gigatonnes in 2025, which is about the amount that the U.S. emitted in 1992. Assuming that Chinese emissions did peak in 2030, the country could by then be emitting three times more than the U.S.

Only time will tell if the joint announcement is more "optics" than substance, though it should make the ongoing U.N. climate change negotiations at Lima in December and at Paris next December more interesting.