Emission Cuts: Can China and the U.S. Work Together After All?

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President Barack Obama’s meeting this week with President Xi Jinping of China for the APEC summit is important for interests beyond trade-related deals. In particular, it will have implications for environmental issues and emission rates. Between Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the most notable statistic being thrown around is the 40% total world emissions that China and the U.S. produce. The two have economic importance as two of the largest world economies, but they also have a portion of environmental responsibility that carries great weight.

The necessity of teamwork

Kerry emphasized how important it is for both nations to act in tandem in an op-ed for The New York Times, praising the efforts both have chosen to take, announced ahead of the international deadline. “We need to solve this problem together because neither one of us can solve it alone. Even if the United States somehow eliminated all of our domestic greenhouse gas emissions, it still wouldn’t be enough to counteract the carbon pollution coming from China and the rest of the world,” wrote Kerry in the piece, published Tuesday.

The same day, a fact sheet was published that outlined the steps agreed to by APEC leaders to “strengthen energy security, promote efficient and sustainable energy development, develop clean energy sources, and reduce the impacts of climate change.”

Previous tensions between the U.S. and China

Kerry’s emphasis on the accomplishment and its positive reflection on the relationship between the U.S. and China is particularly notable given the difficult year the two nations have had together, with accusations of cyber espionage and with China’s dealings with Russia on energy, while the U.S. has been at the head of sanctions against Russia over events in Ukraine. Despite these possible triggers to international tensions, a great deal was accomplished between the nations.

“China is ready to work with the United States to make efforts in a number of priority areas and putting into effect such principles as non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation,” said Xi. “We will promote new progress in building a new type of model of major-country relations between the two countries so as to bring greater benefits to our two peoples and two countries.”

Much of the progress will have long-term effects and lay the groundwork for further eco-friendly changes, perhaps one of the greater accomplishments this week. It is the most important aspect of the changes announced, because by giving a skeletal structure for clean energy reliance over other traditional forms, nations make it easier to flesh out these changes as time goes on.

Kerry gave an example of this in the economic aspects of China’s changes in growing “the share of total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources (renewable and nuclear energy) to around 20 percent by 2030, sending a powerful signal to investors and energy markets around the world and helping accelerate the global transition to clean-energy economies,” which amounts to an impressive 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of power from clean sources like wind, solar and nuclear power. This is a big move, one that may be difficult to accomplish, but it comes alongside other less radical goals.

Looking ahead: international leadership

With such aggressive goals already stated and in the works, the climate treaty negotiations in Paris next year will have a promising head start. “As the world’s largest economies and greatest emitters of greenhouse gases we have special responsibility to lead the global effort against climate change. That’s why I am proud that we can announce a historic agreement. I commend President Xi, his team and the Chinese government for their making to slow, peak, and then reverse China’s carbon emissions,” said Obama at a news conference on Wednesday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.

While some would undoubtedly hope for more from both countries, it’s generally agreed that the steps announced this week are very positive signs likely to bring about legitimate and very real change. What’s more, they’re aggressive but for the most part realistic, meaning they should allow for continued efforts going forward. Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon commented on the agreement, calling it a signal “that the transition towards a low-carbon, climate resilient future is accelerating.”

He said that both presidents had “demonstrated the leadership that the world expects of them” and implored “all countries, especially all major economies, to follow China and the United States’ lead and announce ambitious post-2020 targets as soon as possible, but no later than the first quarter of 2015.”

Follow Anthea on Twitter at @AntheaWSCS

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