The Pope may have left Washington, D.C. after urging the United States to act on climate change at the White House, but the leader of the world’s largest country is in town to talk about some serious climate action of his own.
At a White House press conference Friday afternoon, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a suite of wide-ranging actions that clarify how serious the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter is about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. These include prioritizing green energy on China’s grid, a cap-and-trade or emissions trading system for China, additional low-carbon financing to developing countries, and emissions standards for heavy duty vehicles. The fact that these announcements were made during the world’s most important bilateral meeting and official state visit lends them further significance.
A senior administration official told reporters on a call Thursday afternoon that the two leaders would unveil a joint presidential statement on what the world’s two largest polluters will do to actually achieve the carbon pollution targets they agreed upon last year. In that agreement. the U.S. pledged to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China pledged to peak its carbon dioxide emissions at or before 2030, cap coal use by 2020, and get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. This would mean deploying enough renewable energy capacity to power the entire United States — 800 to 1,000 gigawatts.
Until this week, the biggest news of how either country would fulfill those promises came from the release of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which uses authority granted under the Clean Air Act to require states to cut carbon pollution in the electricity sector.
Friday’s announcement sheds more light on how China will meet or exceed the emissions reduction targets it set last year.
First, the cap-and-trade system. This will be the first time the president of China has committed to it, yet the idea of China adopting a carbon market is not new. In 2013 it began launching regional carbon markets, building up to a half dozen large markets. Earlier this year, a Chinese official said the government planned to launch the first stages of a national carbon market in early 2016. The market still required approval from the authorities, so having the Chinese president confirm that it will launch the market in 2017 moves it into the realm of implementation. When implemented, the market will cover power generation, iron and steel, chemicals, building materials, including cement, paper-making and nonferrous metals, according to the senior administration official. However, it will take several years to get a clear sense of the significance of the carbon market — how expensive the emissions credits are, and who is trading them.
Second, China will adopt a green dispatch system for its grid, where low-carbon electricity gets prioritized over power sourced from fossil fuels. This has been the chokepoint on renewable energy development in China, as the main electricity dispatcher prioritized coal over renewables. There has been a long-running problem of wind power production curtailment in China, where wind turbines sit unused or unconnected to the grid. Though the government has tried to address this in the past, a green dispatch system would fundamentally change how the Chinese grid works. It will reduce the price incentive for coal and ensure that as renewable energy projects are built, they are given first priority to be used.
Third, China plans to boost its international climate finance ambitions significantly, to the order of billions of dollars, and drop support for high-carbon projects like coal plants. China has continued to increase its infrastructure financing projects in developing countries, including climate-related projects. The United States will reaffirm its commitment of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, as well as affirm it’s prior commitment to limit global funding for high carbon projects.
Fourth, the U.S. and China announced the finalization of fuel efficiency standards for heavy duty vehicles, which could have serious impact on emissions. These standards could be huge in terms of emissions reductions, depending on how they are implemented. They will also propose further standards on building efficiency and appliances, and double down on action to cut down on HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases.
Finally, the joint statement also elucidates a common understanding for the Paris climate agreement. “We’ve made new progress I think on the overall issue of differentiation, agreeing that we would, again, pursue an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in light of different national circumstances,” the senior administration official said. There is still a lot of work to be done to achieve an agreement, but this could serve as a safety net for the Paris talks, encouraging separate agreements according to each country’s needs. All nations are assumed to have responsibility for lowering emissions but there remains a need for flexibility and understanding for nations still in dire need. The U.S. and China appear to be working closer together on their commitments, and this coordination makes a flexible global agreement more likely.
To sum up, the green dispatching system and the heavy duty vehicle standards are new, potentially crucial tools to lower emissions. The commitment to the nationwide carbon market at the presidential level could also have a huge impact, depending on how it gets implemented. The rest of the joint statement, though important, is largely already represented in prior announcements and commitments.
“When China makes a solid commitment to take new action to reduce climate disruption and increase clean energy, it’s a big deal for everyone on this planet,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement. “This announcement makes it clear that China is absolutely serious about taking specific policy steps to reduce its emissions and tackle the climate crisis.”
Brune said that the United States’ leadership made this agreement possible.
Conservatives have often used China as an excuse for why they believe the United States should not act on climate change. This announcement, along with the last year’s worth of action and pledges from the top of Chinese national leadership, makes that argument much harder to defend. With the world poised to come to a global agreement to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as local and regional leaders pledging to dramatically cut emissions, any U.S. intransigence becomes more and more discordant.
According to a White House fact sheet, the U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change “describes a common vision” for the Paris talks and “includes significant domestic policy announcements and commitments to global climate finance, demonstrating the determination of both countries to act decisively to achieve the goals set last year.” China also committed to a $3.1 billion international climate finance fund for low-carbon development. “This is by far China’s most significant commitment to climate finance to date,” the fact sheet said, comparable to the $3 billion U.S. commitment. The fact sheet also said China was “affirming that 50 percent of new buildings in urban areas will meet green building standards by 2020.”