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A great leap forward for climate protection

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

The Brookings Institution has released analysis of the recent US – China Climate deal. The world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide together pledged deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – well in advance of the pressure they will face in the upcoming UN Climate Change negotiations that begin in Lima later this month, and which are scheduled to conclude a year from now in Paris. They also did so at a much greater level than was expected.

While both countries have already begun efforts to cut emissions, the timing of the announcement and the depth of the reduction went beyond what many diplomats, businesses and environmental groups anticipated.

In both countries, Brookings highlights, the new pledges follow action their leaders had already taken:


President Obama has made aggressive action on this front a priority throughout his presidency. He committed over US$ 90 billion in stimulus spending and tax cuts after the 2008 financial crisis, aimed at energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. While he was unable to pass mandatory greenhouse gas legislation in his first term, he has wielded executive authority by using the Environmental Protection Agency to mandate greater automobile fuel economy standards and, most recently and controversially, to regulate power plant emissions.


President Xi Jinping rose to power when air pollution has become a major political issue. Air pollution in dozens of Chinese cities regularly and vastly exceeds World Health Organisation standards. The public at large has mobilized on the issue. Despite the Great Firewall of China, the public has utilized the internet, email, social media and text messaging to send a clear message: air quality matters. Moreover, Chinese diplomats do not relish being the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter – with nearly double the CO2 emissions of the US. So two years ago, China announced national abatement targets for all their provinces, and experimental cap and trade systems for six economically advanced jurisdictions.

A great leap forward

According to Brookings, what makes the announcement of this deal so dramatic is that both countries have made it politically easier for each other to take even deeper cuts in two regards – one diplomatic and one domestic. On the diplomatic front, both countries were looking forward one year from now to the 2015 UN global climate summit in Paris. As that meeting approached, international pressure will mount on both countries to announce steep reductions. The closer the meeting, the greater the attention. Each country feared that the other might put the blame for a failed Paris meeting on the other. By taking their public pledge together, one year in advance of Paris, the countries have wisely taken the rancor out of the negotiations for which nation would act responsibly.

Moreover, this serves a domestic political purpose in each country. In the US, the President is gearing up for a fight with a GOP-controlled Senate over his use of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Opponents of this plan are certain to argue that American action would put America at a competitive disadvantage against global competitors – especially China, with which the US still runs a sizeable trade deficit. In China, although air pollution is certainly a growing concern, many companies and local officials still feel the need to aggressively grow the economy and catch up to the West, and they would prefer to clean up the environment later. As in any trade agreement, each side has wisely provided the other with an argument against affected domestic industries – that joint action will lead to a level economic playing field.

Much remains to be done, Brookings emphasises. In the US, President Obama still needs to move forward with the Clean Power Plan, which is the engine that will drive US reductions – working past opposition in both the US Congress and the various states. In China, President Xi needs to make sure that powerful state owned fossil fuel companies support this effort, and also that provincial authorities are rewarded for cutting carbon emissions and that industrial emitters pay a price for non-compliance. Internationally, both countries have a range of other issues to address – including working with the poorest nations which lack the resources to make similarly dramatic cuts, but who are deeply affected by a warmer, wetter world. Still, even with all those obstacles ahead, Brookings holds that the agreement is the beginning of a great leap forward for climate protection.

Adapted from a report by Emma McAleavey.

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