China-U.S. Climate Deal Is Historic, But On Its Own Is Not Enough

Read time: 5 mins

Despite the fact that they've been using the “climate action is useless because China won't act” canard as one of their favorite arguments for years now, Republicans' outraged response to the historic climate deal between China and the U.S. probably took noone by surprise.

Because that's the thing: it is historic. For the first time ever, China has agreed to put a cap on the emissions produced by its rapid, voracious economic expansion. While it's certainly not true that the U.S. taking responsibility for its share of global warming pollution wouldn't have had a meaningful impact anyway, it also can't be ignored that averting runaway climate change would be nearly impossible if China's emissions keep growing unabated.

But to say it's historic that two of the world's biggest economic superpowers—and the world's two largest carbon polluters, together responsible for nearly half of global emissions—have agreed to begin to lower their respective contributions to global warming is not the same thing as saying that the deal President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping struck is enough to get the job done.

The most important issue, of course, is the emissions targets themselves, which come nowhere near what climate scientists say are needed to prevent catastrophic warming. We must lower global warming pollution 80% below 1990 levels by mid-century, yet the US is still using 2005 as its baseline, and has only committed to lowering emissions 26-28% by 2025. China, meanwhile, needs to see its emissions peak by 2020, climate scientists say, but has only committed to doing so by 2030.

“The net result is not victory,” writes Peter Lee in Counterpunch, “it’s probably the recipe for a global temperature rise of 4 degrees which is much higher than the 2 degree rise that everybody said would be very, very bad.”

The 28 leaders of the European Union, by contrast, have just struck a deal to lower their emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

There's some fuzzy logic at work in how emissions will be tracked, too, according to DeSmog research fellow Steve Horn: “As the saying goes, read the fine print: nuclear energy will be accounted for as ‘zero emission’ and it looks like carbon capture and storage (CCS) will too, aka ‘clean coal,’ or ’21st Century Coal’ as the U.S. has preferred to call it in terms of its wheeling and dealing with China.”

Meanwhile, a major push to export the U.S.'s fracking boom to China is underway, which further complicates the matter. China is looking to exploit its vast shale gas resources as a means of lowering its reliance on coal and addressing its smog problem, at a time when the U.S. is only beginning to grapple with the true extent of emissions from its own fracking boom.

Another cause for concern: even the emissions reduction commitments in the deal, weak as they may be, are non-binding, so there are no legal or other mechanisms stipulated to actually hold both countries accountable. As Bill McKibben says, “In effect President Obama is writing an IOU to be cashed by future presidents and Congresses (and Xi is doing the same for future Politburos). If they take the actions to meet the targets, then it's meaningful, but for now it's a paper promise. And since physics is uninterested in spin, all the hard work lies ahead.”

That doesn't mean the U.S. won't necessarily honor its commitments, or that future administrations will be able to easily roll them back. Naomi Klein points out that, “by tying the emission reduction targets of both countries together in a bilateral deal, the President is making sure that his successor will have to weigh any desire to break these commitments against the risks of alienating America most important trading partner.”

There is, of course, more that is positive about this deal. The signal it sends to the international community could well be the most important aspect. It has already put pressure on the world's third-largest emitter, India, to develop its own strategy for lowering emissions. By all accounts the China-U.S. deal should make the climate treaty talks scheduled to be held next year in Paris very interesting.

Another good sign is China's commitment to getting 20% of its energy from zero-emission sources by 2030. To do this, according to the Washington Post, they'll have to install 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of wind, solar, and, yes, nuclear energy capacity, “more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total electricity generating capacity of the United States.” Bill McKibben says that should be easy for China, “because they've revolutionized the production of solar energy, driving down the cost of panels by 90 percent or more in the last decade.” Who knows how much cheaper this commitment will drive solar prices.

Then again, we certainly can't be counting those chicks just yet. Naomi Klein's new book This Changes Everything makes the case that globalization based on neoliberal economic policies is essentially the antithesis of climate action, and she reiterated that point in her response to the China-U.S. deal:

As I argue in the book, free trade deals and World Trade Organization rules are increasingly being used to undercut important climate policies, by blocking subsidies for renewable energy and other supports for the clean energy sector. The mindless expansion of cross-border trade also fuels carbon-intensive consumption and emissions growth, and NAFTA-style pacts bestow corporations with outrageous powers to challenge national policies at international tribunals. Climate objectives could yet be undermined by the US-China deal on high-tech goods, which still has to be approved by the WTO, or by a massive new regional trade agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The recent takeover of the Senate doesn't bode well, either. The Clean Air Act gives the U.S. EPA not just the mechanisms but a mandate to lower greenhouse gas emissions, which is what the agency's Clean Power Plan will begin to do. But Republicans have already said they're gunning for the emissions standards in the Clean Power Plan, and have shown their willingness to shut down the entire federal government to get their way in the past.

Image Credit: Zerbor /

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