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

, , former president | November 12, 2014, 12:43 pm EDT
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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.


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.

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming, Nuclear Power

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  • I agree, we should celebrate this significant step. I hope it will lead to additional steps further in spite of resistance from Congress and that it will encourage other nations to develop similar goals prior to next year’s negotiations in Paris.

    I’m not happy about the “moving of the goal posts” (counting carbon emission relative to 2005 rather than 1990 levels), or about the fact that the targets aren’t really binding, or that much of these climate policies were already in place or in the pipeline ( In any case, your and UCS’s proposals to extend the EPA power plant rules and invest in fuel efficient vehicles both seem doable and would improve the situation, provided that cooler heads prevail in Congress.

  • Bota Bang

    can anyone please tell me – does the above mentioned have any impact on PTC extension? Thanks

    • Mike Hugh-jass

      Separate issue. The good news is that many red states have an increasingly large number of jobs and revenue from wind, so Congress, even the current Congress, may actually renew the production tax credit. The problem is that “clean” bills are amended by schmucks with partisan crap which then makes the bill die.

  • How does the shuttering of 60,000 factories in the United States since 2000 affect our carbon emissions? Also, as our economy steadily declines, then won’t we use less forms of carbon emitting energy?
    I predict the 25% reduction in emissions for the U.S. will happen no matter what.

    • Mike Hugh-jass

      Given the various ways the US tracks GDP, not to mention the stock market, it would seem that your (oddly missing from the media) closing of 60,000 factories did not have much of an impact.

      By every reasonable measure, the US economy is doing quite fine. I would suggest trying to get your economic information from other sources.

      • Greyguy

        I have no idea where you folks live or how you do you economics, but the US is not doing just fine; there are 90+ million people of working age not participating in the workforce which is a record. Only 47% of the eligable population is paying income taxes, and you consider this JUST FINE. Our economy cannot keep printing money, supporting wealth transfer payments, while outsourcing economic activity in an ongoing fashion. China and India are taking all of our jobs and economic activity while we think we are cleaning up our environment while all we are doing is outsourcing pollution to places that do not have the resources or inclination to do much about it and loosing the jobs as well. And I am not even talking about CO2, I am referring to CFL’s where the locals are suffering mercury poisoning while we legilate them into our economy.

        Our government has regulated industry so they manufacture items overseas.
        Our government just did a sweetheart deal with China which will screwover American industry with more regulation while the Chinese get to watch and do nothing, bow their heads and say maybe we will do something someday.

        On another front, the only money in wind farms is tax r=write offs and government subsidies. I have been going by wind farms in the western part of the SoCal dessert and as a former plant manager I can tell you that almost no maintainence is being done because everytime I go by there are more Propellers on the ground! They are economic wastelands!

      • Mike Hugh-jass

        The current US population is ~316 million

        If 90+ million are not participating, that means we have more than 28.5% unemployment.

        Does that seem rational to you?

        The 47% figure is FOX News ignorance desperately trying to frame an issue with lies. Please at least entertain the possibility that Mitt Romney’s “takers” speech was nonsense. If facts contradict ideological dogma, that doesn’t make the facts part of a vast Socialist conspiracy, it means the dogma is wrong.

        China and India are not “taking” all of our jobs, and pollution figures needs to be taken in context to either per capita population, GDP, or anything other than a empty vacuum.

        Our government has put in place regulations to balance the needs of our economy with our environment. We have little influence on what regulations Zimbabwe puts in place, but as economies grow, so to does the demand for worker safety, wages, environmental protection etc.

      • Greyguy

        First an foremost the unemployment rate never counts those who have given up and run out their comp benefits. In addition many people are taking “part time” or other employment which in no way replaces what they lost, hence my underemployment portion of the comment. People who have given up probably at least doubles the the unemployment rate. If you start counting the the folks who are not using their skills productively that is another 6%. I live in fly over country and mere observation would confirm these numbers. Now let’s move to Increases in SSI since 2008, the restictions have been relaxed and the rolls have grown dramatically and most of these folks were employed before the collpse and became SSI folks since they knew their jobs were toast close to 10 million. Now let us move to capable people who have found they are better off with little or no income collecting transfer payments, food stamps, etc, they all count toward the 90 million.

        Now figure that these folks are also not paying income tax which would indicate that less than hlf of Americans pay no income tax. The numbers start looking more logical this way and all of them belong to the government not fox.

        As an aside, I would be a liitle careful of NBC, CBS, ABC, New York Times, Washington Post; There were only one or two stories about our friend Prof Gruber deceiving the American People for 3 to 4 days by these renowned “news” organizations who acted more like propaganda arms of the Whitehouse. If you pulled a stuntlike that working in private industry your days would be numbered, at le st with the people I worked with!

      • It is a shame to watch both the liberals and the conservatives become victims off the media.
        I like your in-depth research. Keep up the good work!

      • Greyguy

        Sometimes it is difficult to be civil when a lot of folks do not have any idea of the facts or lack of facts are behind what is said in politics and the media. I try to help clarify the best I can from my background in business and adjuct teaching so thanks for the thumbs up.

  • blah, blah, blah

  • Ben, I appreciate your concern, but I disagree with your premise. I believe that President Obama has the tools he needs to put us on the path to reaching the 26-28 percent reduction target. He is not counting on Congress to pass a new law–which for the reasons you suggest is prudent. But he is counting on federal agencies, such as the EPA, to fully use existing legal authority to limit carbon dioxide emissions. As I point out in my blog, under existing authority, and using proven, cost-effective technologies, we can achieve deep cuts in heat trapping gases from our electric generating and transportation sectors. Our job is to hold the “feet to the fire” for this Administration and its successors.

    Similarly in China, the commitment to 20% fossil free electric generation by 2030 will put a brake on the rapid and disturbing escalation of coal plants. But even more to the point, Chinese leadership is clearly responding to the demands of Chinese people for clean air. I don’t expect those demands to abate as China modernizes; in fact, the pressure to clean up air pollution will increase. So I don’t see this as an empty PR move, though I agree that bottom-up pressure in both countries is essential to making sure it is not.

    • Mike Hugh-jass

      I see China’s motivation as more of fear of the people coming together and labeling their government as a failure if they do not (can not) fix their air and water pollution.

  • Ben

    Mother Jones did a piece on this agreement ( that, like this blog post, sees this agreement as a historic step forward. Maybe I’m too cynical, but it seems fairly empty to me.

    On the U.S. side, it says “the United States will reduce carbon emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, nearly twice the existing target—without imposing new restrictions on power plants or vehicles.” It also says “The plan does not entail using the US Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.” How exactly will we achieve those reductions, then? Magic? None of the “series of initiatives” mentioned seem likely to produce much of a reduction in U.S. emissions. The new Republican-dominated Congress won’t go along with anything Obama proposes; they don’t even agree that global warming is real or caused by humans. Indeed, James Inhofe, a notorious Republican climate change denier, will be the next chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Obama has apparently already put his cards on the table that these reductions will not come from new action by the EPA. So the whole thing sounds like a PR move, not a policy likely to actually make a difference.

    On the China side it’s even worse. Note that China is currently building new coal-fired power plants as fast as they possibly can; I recall reading that they complete a new coal plant every couple of days. This agreement in no way commits them to changing course on that at all. Instead, it only commits them to “peaking” in 2030, with no mention of how high that “peak” will be. In other words, it explicitly allows them to continue building new coal plants as fast as they can, all the way to 2030, at which point they will have to stop building new plants and coast along for the next 50 years with the plants they have built. That is a climate *disaster* – that is exactly the future that we desperately need to avoid, and Obama is apparently trumpeting his agreement with it as a victory for the climate.

    If there is real reason to think that this agreement is more than an empty PR move, I’d love to hear it. This UCS blog post doesn’t supply me with much evidence of that.

    • Mike Hugh-jass

      Inhofe et al controls the purse strings, but more for budgets in the future, not so much for say next Tuesday. Neither he nor Congress can write veto proof legislation or is able to avoid executive signing statements. Fox et al meanwhile will continue to rant and froth about “executive actions” because those are only for Republican presidents dont ya know.

      China agrees to have 20% of it’s energy come from renewables and nuclear by 2030. What I can not find is the exact type (if there is any exact language) of nuclear plant design. Skunk works recently made news with fusion reactors, then there is thorium based… “nuclear” doesn’t really say much.

      My opinion is that China’s government is staring to fear the people labeling their government as incompetent if they do not (can not) fix their air and water pollution problems. Fear is a wonderful motivator for China’s government. These are not stupid commies. Business leaders and economists have explained just how much money/productivity/opportunity is lost due to the heath consequences of their pollution.

    • Jeff_White

      It’s too little, too late. China’s fossil-free electricity generation will come in large part from nuclear, and the nuclear industry is already licking their chops and lining up for contracts.

      The IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report in 2007 said Annex I countries such as the United States need to hit an emissions reduction target of 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 in order to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming — on the way to at least an 80% reduction by 2050. US emissions were already 16% higher in 2005 than in 1990, so moving the baseline to 2005 requires an even more drastic timeline: a minimum of 36% by 2020 and 83% by 2050.

      • Jeff, you are right that the US/China agreement alone is not going to achieve the reductions we need and on the timeline we need. And it is indeed discouraging that since the 2007 report, emissions have gone up, rather than down. But I do believe this agreement lays the foundation for a successful international agreement next year, and an international accord will function as a substantial “down payment” on the emissions reductions we need.

  • Science has
    identified the two drivers that explain the uptrends and downtrends of climate
    change with 95% correlation since before 1900. Search “agwunveiled”
    to discover what they are and why CO2 change is NOT one of them.

    • Mike Hugh-jass

      “Science” since the Enlightenment as been able to weed out the ignorant and allow the cream to rise to the top primarily through peer review. It’s not perfect, there are rare examples of flaws and outright fraud getting through, but it is eventually found out and eliminated. People are getting increasingly tired of flat earth nonsense attempting to present itself as “science.”

      • As to ‘peer review’ there is this quote, available in Wikipedia, by Richard Horten, editor of the Lancet “But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.”

        Broad science skill allows one to challenge the ‘science’ and ‘peer review’ as possibly being just more propaganda towards a political agenda. Unfortunately, much of ‘peer review’ of papers on climate science has morphed into an academic club approving each other’s work.