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Friday, November 14, 2014

The U. S. and China Announce Joint Emissions Reductions

People in China and the U. S. feel the effects of global warming in their daily lives.  Smog in Beijing and other cities, driven in part by burning coal for electric generation, severely impacts the lives of Chinese citizens.  During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit Nov. 11-14, 2014, China closed factories and gave workers time off in Beijing to reduce emissions while foreign officials were there.   While the average global temperature has risen worldwide since the industrial revolution began, the average temperature in China has risen even more.  The frequency of extreme weather and exceptional natural disasters such as droughts, dust storms, heavy rains, flooding and mudslides in China has risen in recent decades.  Urbanization has increased in China’s coastal cities, such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Hong Kong, making them more vulnerable to inundations from rising sea levels.

American coastal cities such as Miami Beach and Norfolk, Virginia routinely suffer high tide flooding.  According to the U. S. National Climate Assessment (May 2014),
warming has already had adverse effects across the U. S., including heat waves, droughts, wildfires, changes in availability of water, floods, ocean storm surges, extreme weather and climate events and socioeconomic effects.  Worsening of these trends is foreseen during this century.

Global warming from man-made greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide (CO2), is clearly a problem confronting all humanity, requiring the cooperation of all nations of the world to address it.  Once emitted into the atmosphere, GHGs disperse across the entire globe.  Multinational efforts to conclude a new global warming treaty are currently under way.  Nevertheless, some experts have suggested that agreements between two or a small set of nations could play an important role as well.  Along these lines the U. S. and China announced a joint agreement to address GHG emissions on Nov. 12, 2014, during the APEC summit.

President Obama and President Xi pledged that their countries would significantly reduce emissions of GHGs over the next 15 years, each in their own way.  They agreed that

  • the U. S. would lower its GHG emission rates by 26-28% from the levels emitted in 2005, by 2025.  (The U. S. has already pledged to reduce emissions by 17% from the levels of 2005 by 2020.)  This requires an increasing the intended annual rate of reduction of GHG emissions from 1.2% per year up to 2020 to 2.3-2.8% per year between 2020 and 2025.
  • China’s emission rates, which continue growing because it is adding new fossil fuel-driven electric generating plants to power its expanding economy, will reach a maximum annual rate by 2030 and possibly sooner.  China’s commitment to slow the growth of its emissions was not specified in numerical terms.  As part of this initiative China expects to increase the share of energy derived from renewable sources (solar power, wind, nuclear and hydroelectric) to 20% by the target date of 2030.
  • The two nations agreed to extend and expand their cooperation in reducing emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, used in refrigeration, originally announced in 2013.  These substances are far more potent GHGs than CO2.

These commitments are being made by the two countries that are the two highest-emitting nations of the world, accounting for over one-third of annual global emission rates of GHGs.  The importance of these pledges cannot be exaggerated.

  • The commitments pledge major reductions in GHG emission rates by each of the two nations.
  • The agreement was reached outside the framework of the worldwide United Nations sponsored negotiations for a universal treaty.  Those negotiations, occurring annually for many years, have been fraught with contention and disagreements.
  • The commitments made by the two largest emitters of GHGs in the world to reduce emission rates should serve as a powerful incentive for other nations to reduce their emissions, whether individually or within the U. N. framework, to reach a meaningful agreement.

There is need for caution as well as enthusiasm in evaluating this agreement.  The U. S. White House put out a press release concerning this bilateral agreement on behalf of Presidents Obama and Xi.  This writer sought and could not find a corresponding English-language announcement on the web site of People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s newspaper, for Nov. 12, nor for Nov. 13, 2014.  However, China Daily, a non-governmental English language newspaper, did report the announcements.  If accurate, this leaves an impression that the Chinese government preferred to downplay or dissociate itself from the agreement even as President Obama embraced it.

This is not a binding agreement between parties.  As the White House wrote, the two parties separately announced goals or commitments to attain their respective targets by their respective dates.  President Obama has only two years left in office, so that most of the target conditions will have to be fulfilled by his successor(s).  A future president could just as well decide against following through on the present commitments.  He also faces a hostile Congress which may interfere with his intentions. 

President Xi heads a central government, so it may be easier for him to follow through on his commitments (see below, discussion on Five Year Plans).

The agreement imposes very different constraints on the two governments.  The American commitment is for numerically stated, and verifiable, reductions in emission rates.  The Chinese commitment, however, fails to specify a numerical standard for the extent of its reduction in emission rates.  The announcement states only that China will reduce the growth rate of its annual emissions until a maximum rate is achieved by 2030, or perhaps earlier.  Presumably China’s emission rate will actually begin falling after 2030, but this also is not stated.  (A common objective among climate scientists and policymakers, in order to keep the world’s global average temperature rise below 2ºC (3.6ºF), is that global emission rates have to be cut by 80% or more by 2050 below early 21st century levels.)

China’s Five Year Plans (FYPs) have already programmed in significant changes.  China’s national development is set forth in successive FYPs, which are assembled by China’s central government.  According to the report “Delivering Low Carbon Growth – A Guide to the 12th Five Year Plan”,  the proportion of energy provided by non-fossil fuel sources is to be 11.4% in the 12th FYP (2011-2015) and 15.0% in the 13th FYP (2016-2020).  So it is seen that much of the goal in November’s bilateral agreement is already planned, leaving an additional 5% of total energy to be provided by non-fossil fuel sources in the ten years leading to 2030 in order to reach the specified 20% objective.

China Daily reported that the bilateral agreement used earlier language that has always distinguished between developing and developed countries.  The wording was first presented in the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change twenty years ago, namely, that nations of the world address climate change “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”.   This phrasing reflects the concerns that “the developed countr[ies] should take the lead in combating climate change” and that the “specific needs and special circumstances of developing countr[ies]…should be given full consideration”.  

China Daily reported that in the bilateral agreement "the two countries are committed to reaching an ambitious 2015 agreement that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.”  In other words, developing countries such as China continue to stress equity in insisting that they be given the same opportunity to develop, using fossil fuels for energy, that industrialized countries have benefited from for more than a century.  At the same time they point to the responsibility of those developed countries now to limit their emissions because of their advanced economic status.  These attitudes stress hindsight or past history.

Developed countries such as the U. S., on the other hand, presumably consider equity as supporting a policy that, since developing countries are now the ones expanding the world’s burden of atmospheric GHGs, they should bear the “differentiated responsibility” of constraining their emissions. Whereas China was an impoverished developing country in the early 1990s, it is now the world’s largest emitter of GHGs and a powerful economic force.  One can legitimately question whether developed countries still have to acknowledge “differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” of flourishing countries such as China.


U. S. President Obama and China’s President Xi announced bilateral objectives of differing scope and timing to place their nations on paths toward significant reductions in GHG emission rates.  The joint objectives mark the first time the two nations of the world with the highest emission rates agree on the importance of mitigating emission rates; the result will be highly significant for the climatic health of our planet.  Citizens of both countries, indeed of all the world’s nations, will benefit from this undertaking.  It creates an important incentive for achieving agreement on mitigating emissions worldwide, resulting from U. N.-sponsored negotiations over the coming year.

© 2014 Henry Auer

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