Good News for the Climate: U.S. & China Agree to Cut Emissions (Finally!)

November 12, 2014
Ken Kimmell
Former contributor

One day, when historians look back to pick the time when the world finally woke up and decided to address global warming, that time may well be the fall of 2014. First, the march in New York drew 400,000 people and many thousands more across the globe to demand that our leaders take action on climate change. And today, the United States and China announced a truly historic agreement to cut emissions of carbon dioxide.

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What does the agreement actually say?

The agreement is a welcome breakthrough. It is very promising that the world’s two biggest economies—together responsible for roughly 40 percent of global emissions—have agreed to cut their emissions. Specifically, President Obama committed the U.S to reducing its emissions to 25-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, which is feasible using proven and cost-effective technologies such as renewable energy and electric vehicles. And China has pledged for the first time that its total emissions will peak no later than 2030, a sharp break from the current trajectory in which emissions from China continue to rise each year. To help make good on that pledge, China has also agreed to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable or nuclear sources by 2030.

This agreement removes the biggest stumbling block to a global climate accord, namely the unwillingness of the United States to act without a commitment from China (and vice-versa), and the unwillingness of other countries to act without strong commitments from both countries. Global warming is the ultimate example of the “tragedy of the commons” in which the health of a shared resource (in this case, the earth’s atmosphere) depends upon many individual nations taking action collectively, with no individual nation wanting to pay the cost unless it can be assured that other responsible counterparts are also doing their fair share. The only effective antidote to this dynamic is real leadership, and that is precisely what United States and China have just shown. Now that they have stepped up to the plate, accompanied by the European Union, which has pledged a forty percent emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2030, there are no excuses for inaction.

What’s next?

The success of the agreement is far from certain. The key is prompt follow through by both countries. While 2025 may seem far off, President Obama must act now to put in place the right mix of policies for the United States to meet its pledge and two steps are particularly urgent.

First, the EPA has put out a draft rule to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent by 2030. While this is a positive development, it turns out that, in order to make a reduction of 26-28 percent economy wide (as the U.S. has just pledged to do), reductions from power plants must be much deeper—on the order of a 40 to 50 percent cut. That’s because power plants are responsible for so much of the carbon pollution, and they offer the most cost effective way to reduce overall emissions. So, to make the pledge real, the EPA should tighten the power plant target to at least a 40 percent reduction by 2030. UCS has already called for this and has shown it can be done by taking greater advantage of the dramatic growth of renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Second, the Obama Administration should continue its leadership in making our vehicles more efficient. Due to UCS-supported rules put in place a few years ago, by 2025 our passenger cars will go about twice as far on a gallon of gas as they do now. The President can ensure similar improvements for heavy and medium duty vehicles, such as delivery vans and freight trucks, by proposing a strong standard in the next phase of rule-making. UCS has shown that it is feasible and cost-effective for these vehicles to use 40% less fuel than they did in 2010, and the investment in new technologies will be paid back promptly through savings in fuel costs.

While the Administration takes these and other actions, we need to prepare to push back against likely resistance from Congress. It is discouraging that, before the ink has dried on this agreement, and before its benefits have been understood, some leaders have chosen to pounce on it. For example, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is quoted today as saying: “This unrealistic plan, that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs.” All of us need to counter such criticisms with the clear evidence: the states that have already put clean energy policies in place are flourishing today, with thriving economies, a diversified energy mix, and thousands of new jobs created to build a clean energy future.

But this is for a later time. For today, we should celebrate that, under the leadership of Presidents Obama and Xi, we have taken a significant step forward to address the greatest global threat we have ever faced.