The U.S. and China reached a historic deal on climate change Tuesday, an agreement that top conservatives have been quick to criticize.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was one of the first to condemn the deal, which ups the United States’ emissions reduction target to 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and commits China, for the first time, to a goal of peaking carbon emissions and getting 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. McConnell called the plan “unrealistic” and said that it, as part of the president’s “war on coal,” it would lead to a loss of U.S. jobs. He also said on Wednesday that he was “particularly distressed” by the deal and that it signals that President Obama doesn’t want to “move toward the middle” by negotiating with Republicans.
In addition, McConnell said, the deal “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years while these carbon emissions regulations create havoc in my state and other states around the country.”
But China’s commitment to peak its emissions by 2030 — and possibly before — doesn’t mean that the country will sit idly by until then as emissions surge. Though experts have predicted that, if China continues on its current emissions path, emissions would likely peak by 2030 anyway, China’s willingness to be an international player in climate change efforts and its commitment to increase its non-fossil fuel energy sources to 20 percent by 2030 make the deal a significant step for the country. China has already positioned itself as a world leader in renewable energy investment in recent years, spending $56.3 billion on renewable projects in 2013. And far from doing “nothing,” some experts have praised the 20 percent target as ambitious.
“Twenty percent does sound fairly robust,” Jake Schmidt, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council told the New York Times. “You’re talking about 20 percent of a huge economy being based on non-carbon-dioxide emissions sources. That’s significant.”
McConnell isn’t the only lawmaker to take issue with the new deal. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) agreed with McConnell: he said Wednesday morning that the plan is “the latest example of the president’s crusade against affordable, reliable energy that is already hurting jobs and squeezing middle-class families.” As did Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI): the two lawmakers said the deal meant that China is “promising to double their emissions while the administration is going around Congress to impose drastic new regulations inhibiting our own growth and competitiveness.” John Barasso (R-WY) also agreed, saying the deal is “a great deal for the Chinese government and the Chinese economy.”
“This agreement forces Americans to drastically decrease our emissions immediately – yet allows China to let their emissions continue to rise for the next 16 years,” he said in a statement.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a climate denier who’s now set to become head of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, also blasted the agreement — but for being too ambitious on China’s end, rather than not ambitious enough. Inhofe called it a “non-binding charade” and cast doubt on whether China would be able to meet its commitments.
“It’s hollow and not believable for China to claim it will shift 20 percent of its energy to non-fossil fuels by 2030, and a promise to peak its carbon emissions only allows the world’s largest economy to buy time,” Inhofe said Wednesday. “China builds a coal-fired power plant every 10 days, is the largest importer of coal in the world, and has no known reserves of natural gas.”
It’s true that the commitments, as they now stand, are non-binding, and that China continues to rely heavily on coal. But China has also been investing in non-fossil fuel resources, including hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, and solar. And the extreme pollution in parts of the country, which has been linked to over a million premature deaths, makes reducing emissions a practical, not just theoretical, target for China. The country has already begun taking steps to reduce this pollution, officials signaled at the same summit that the country would act on a carbon-dioxide cap soon. Even before this deal was announced, China has been taking steps to cut emissions, including creating a major carbon trading market last year.
These responses to the deal aren’t surprising. They echo, in many ways, the response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule on power plant emissions in June, a proposal that many Republican lawmakers — McConnell in particular — blasted as part of the President’s war on coal. The rhetoric surrounding the climate deal is more of the same: further carbon emissions means more coal plants will have to be shut down, which means fewer coal jobs.
Right now, it’s not clear how the U.S. will achieve this new emissions goal, which builds on a previous target of reducing emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. So it’s too early to say whether the coal industry — which is already on the decline in many states due to the transition to mining techniques that require fewer actual workers and competition from cheap natural gas — will take a hit from the deal.
The deal also takes away a bargaining chip that many lawmakers have relied on over the years when the question of acting on climate change is posed: that because China, the world’s largest emitter, hasn’t yet acted on climate change, the U.S. shouldn’t either. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said in May that, because other countries such as China and India are major greenhouse gas emitters, proposals to address climate change wouldn’t “do anything about the problem.” Mother Jones has a roundup of other Republican lawmakers calling for delayed U.S. action on climate change because other countries continue to emit greenhouse gases, including statements like “America’s a country, not a planet.” It’s a trope that’s been useful for lawmakers who want to delay action on climate change, but with this new deal, it’s become much harder to fall back on — making the deal even less appealing to conservatives.