Why The U.S.-China CO2 Deal Is An Energy, Climate, And Political Gamechanger

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The historic new U.S.-China climate deal changes the trajectory of global carbon pollution emissions, greatly boosting the chances for a global deal in Paris in 2015. The deal would keep, cumulatively, some 640 billion tons of CO2 emissions out of the air this century, according to brand new analysis by Climate Interactive and MIT, using their C-ROADS model.

The U.S.-China deal is truly a gamechanger. In fact, you could make a strong case that prior to this deal, neither the U.S. or China were seriously in the game of trying to stave off climate catastrophe. Now both countries are.

When you add the recent European Union (EU) pledge to cut total emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, we now have countries representing more than half of all global emissions making serious commitments — and that in turn puts pressure on every other country. If the developing countries were to all follow China’s lead, and the non-EU developed countries follow ours, a 2015 global deal would slash carbon pollution this century by a whopping 2500 billion tons of CO2 (see figure below).

China deal

The Chinese commitment to more than double carbon-free electricity generation is also a gamechanger. It guarantees that the recent explosive growth — and amazing price drops — experienced by renewables like solar and wind will continue for decades to come. And that means the long-predicted ascendance of carbon-free energy has now begun in earnest.

Finally, the political implications of this deal can’t be overstated. Conservatives have been attacking EPA climate standards as government over-reach that supposedly harms the U.S. economy, while assuring us over and over and over again that the world’s biggest polluter (China) won’t act. That attack has not merely been rendered impotent. Now efforts to stop EPA can clearly be seen for what they really are — an effort to kill any deal with China and stop the nations of the world from coming together to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Thanks to this deal, any politician who says the U.S. can’t meet EPA carbon pollution standards is saying that the U.S. can’t deploy even a fraction of the carbon-free electricity the Chinese just told the entire world they are going to build in the next 15 years!

Underscoring the bilateral deal’s importance, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself joined Obama in the U.S.-China Joint Announcement that “China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early.” That by itself is a political game changer, which eviscerates the right-wing mantra of delay: “China will never act and so nothing we do matters.”

No doubt you’re shocked, shocked to learn the leader of the Senate do-nothing caucus, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has already said he is “particularly distressed” by this deal because it supposedly “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.” Not!

In fact, Melanie Hart, the Director for China Policy at the Center for American Progress, explains, “The pattern of major energy price reforms already underway in China demonstrates they are already doing the hard work needed to make this [peak] happen.” The Chinese have already started to work toward a CO2 peak, which is no surprise since this deal will require them to take massive action — hence, their other game-changing commitment to “increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.”

This energy pledge alone “will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar, and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”

This pledge is a statement to the world by China that renewables are ready to ramp up sharply! By itself, this pledge ensures that the ascendance of carbon-free energy over fossil fuels is irreversible. No wonder the pro-pollution crowd is “particularly distressed”!

Adding to their distress, Obama announced “a new target to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.” That roughly doubles the rate of decline Obama has committed the country to with his previous target of a 17 percent cut by 2020.


CREDIT: White House

This is a challenging target under existing law and doubly so given the anti-science makeup of the incoming Congress. It sets up the next Congressional session and the 2016 Presidential election as an epic battle between the forces who want to avert climate catastrophe and those who want to keep the fossil fuel Ponzi scheme going an extra decade or two — even if it means ruining a livable climate for our children and grandchildren and for centuries to come!

Ironically, in post-election analysis on Fox News last week, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said of the President:

“I think the one item he could negotiate, and I’m serious about this, climate change. That’s the one where if we and China could agree it would make a difference…. If he gets an agreement with China, which he won’t, but that’s the one area it would be historic.”

It’s worth noting that the U.S. commitment is for a cut in greenhouse gas emissions, which includes CO2 and methane. That means it is even more crucial than ever we correctly account for methane leaks, so that we are actually meeting this new target and not just replacing easy-to-measure CO2 emissions from coal with hard-to-measure methane emissions from natural gas production. Also, since Russian gas is leakier than ours, China should pledge to help Russia sharply reduce their leaks.

Bottom Line: The U.S.-China deal greatly increases the chance of a global agreement in Paris next December that shifts the world close to an emissions path that can stabilize CO2 levels and keep total warming as close to 2°C (3.6°F) as possible. It ensures that carbon-free energy will be the dominant new energy source in the coming decades. Climate activists certainly share in this achievement, but will need continued vigilance. The anti-science forces in this country have already lined up against it, and the road to actual stabilization at non-dangerous CO2 levels is a very long one.