The American expression “now you’re talking,” actually means “now you’re getting real.” Getting real on steps to confront climate change means moving from talking to action—big action.
And that’s the signal out of Beijing from yesterday’s summit between President Obama and President Xi Jinping.
President Obama pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. President Xi announced targets to peak carbon dioxide emissions around 2030—with the intention to peak sooner—and to increase China’s non-fossil fuel share of energy to around 20 percent by 2030. Next steps will be important, but this accord signals a significant move forward for climate action—in the United States, in China, and internationally.
An Important Step Forward
To understand why this is potentially an historic turning point, it is important to think about what this accord says about China. In just a few years, China has gone from no international commitment on climate, to committing at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference to reducing carbon intensity, to now pledging to peak its emissions. Moreover, China is not just talking, but is putting forward targets that can be reviewed by the international community.
These promises are driven by deep currents of necessity and national interest—like choking, coal-driven pollution in China’s cities, serious energy security worries of overdependence on coal imports, scientific warnings of sea level rise engulfing eastern cities, and devastating drought affecting food security. And on the other side of the ledger, there’s the promise of economic gain from being a first-mover in technological innovation and the health benefits associated with low-carbon energy.
It’s also an important moment in U.S.-China relations. There is a long history of U.S. bipartisan support for clean energy research and development (R&D) cooperation with China, most recently on building efficiency, electric vehicles, and carbon capture and storage (CCS). The new accord adds new CCS initiatives, but goes beyond R&D to feature an unprecedented agreement on climate targets.
Finally, the new announcement holds implications for climate action internationally. The recognition of the need for action by two of the world’s great powers injects urgency into negotiations to establish a strong, universal climate agreement that protects people from storms, rising seas, drought and other climate change impacts. The talks in Lima, Peru, next month and the conclusion in Paris in December of 2015 just took on new promise.
China’s New Targets Are Achievable
China’s announcement is already being questioned in the media as either too weak or too strong. Let’s look at the facts: Analysis by researchers at MIT and Tsinghua University shows that by continuing current efforts to reduce its carbon intensity, China’s carbon emissions will likely level off between 2030 and 2040. This study also found that with additional actions, emissions could stabilize between 2025 and 2035 and then decline.
Reaching the earlier target is entirely possible because it is, in fact, the direction in which China is already moving. In 2013, China was the world’s top investor in renewable energy, providing 21 percent of the world total. The same year, China installed 12 gigawatts (GW) of solar photovoltaic projects, 50 percent more than any country has installed in a single year. And even on coal, new installation of Chinese coal power peaked in 2006 at more than 90GW, and fell dramatically to 36.5 GW in 2013. China is now pressing forward with plans to scale up its regional cap-and-trade pilots to the national scale as well as place a cap on coal consumption.
Turning Commitments into Action
Of course, with respect to both countries, questions remain. It would be good to know more about the steps China will take to achieve its pledge. We have seen some of the country’s plans emerge in recent months, but how do they all fit together? What new initiatives will be added? And under what time-frame? Another key question is what is the composition of the 20 percent non-fossil energy target?
Even adding up the U.S., China, and recently announced E.U. emissions-reduction targets, there is still a gap between the initial commitments on the table and what scientists tell us is needed to avoid dangerous climate change. In short order, the two countries will no doubt get lots of free advice on filling in the blanks, and so they should. Nevertheless, the U.S.-China accord has broken the logjam, opening the way for action by other countries and, as momentum and the benefits of action become clear, for stronger action by the United States and China.
Years ago when I was in the Navy, I remember a young officer facing a difficult assignment. A friendly, older officer took him aside and said, “You need to stop fighting the problem and think about how to solve it.” Perhaps this is what the United States and China have begun to do, and now, what the international community will be able to do together. For years, many countries have talked about why they could not take action. Yesterday’s announcement signals that we’ve moved to a new phase—the problem-solving phase. We better get moving. We have a lot of catching up to do.