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Reality Check: US-China Climate Statement Is No Breakthrough

John Kemp, Reuters

The joint statement by the United States and China on climate change, issued on Wednesday, is more important for its political and diplomatic symbolism than any practical effect it might have in reducing emissions.

The statement reiterates policies China and the United States have been developing on their own and contains no new binding limits on greenhouse emissions.

Instead it is intended to “inject momentum into the global climate negotiations and inspire other countries to join in coming forward with ambitious actions as soon as possible” ahead of the next multilateral climate summit in Paris in 2015.


In the joint announcement, the United States gave its intention to cut economy-wide emissions 26-28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025.

The baseline, scale and timing of the reductions are essentially the same as those proposed in the Clean Power Plan, published by the Environmental Protection Agency in June.

In return, China announced that it intends to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions no later than 2030 and to increase the share of non-fossil fuels to around 20 percent of primary energy consumption.

China has a long-standing strategy to increase the share of zero-emission resources in national electricity generation at the expense of fossil fuels, especially coal.

China’s government has been discussing an energy and climate strategy based on emissions peaking in either 2025 or 2030; the joint announcement opts for the later target, which is easier to achieve.

The joint announcement employs language very carefully. Throughout, the operative word is “intend” or “intention”, which makes clear the statement is not meant to create any new obligations.

China’s 2030 emissions target is set in terms of a date but says nothing about the level at which emissions will peak.

China’s target for primary energy consumption is expressed in terms of “non-fossil fuels”, which means a big increase in nuclear power as well as wind, solar and hydro.

Crucially, the joint statement reaffirms “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities”, which has been the sticking point in international negotiations since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.


Both sides have strong reasons to want an announcement on climate change at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing this week.

U.S. President Barack Obama needs to demonstrate he is still relevant following defeats for his Democratic Party in the mid-term elections this month. The mid-term results have been perceived by many observers as a big setback for the president’s climate agenda.

The Republican Party will control both chambers of the U.S. Congress from January 2015. Congressional Republicans are hostile to large parts of the president’s policies on climate and energy, especially his administration’s implementation of emissions curbs through regulatory action rather than legislation.

Republican lawmakers have pledged to roll back some of the regulatory actions that the administration has taken over the last four years through the Environmental Protection Agency.

In reality, congressional Republicans and their allies in the Democratic Party from major energy-producing states lack enough votes to overcome a presidential veto.

But Congress has the power to defund the agency, block appointments, hold critical hearings and generally make life for the agency much more difficult.

The president needed an ambitious statement to prove he can still make a difference and allay concerns that the United States is damaging its competitiveness by implementing carbon controls unilaterally without requiring other countries, principally China, to do the same.


For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping also needed an ambitious statement. As host nation, China wants the APEC summit to be successful.

In exchange for the climate statement, China’s negotiators have secured goodwill and concessions from the United States on other parts of the agenda, including maritime disputes and trade negotiations, as well as some useful technology transfers.

By adopting emissions targets on its own terms, China can influence negotiations leading up to the 2015 climate summit and head off pressure for tougher targets.

China can point to its self-adopted targets as well as the principle of “common and differentiated responsibilities” to block any attempt to erect carbon tariffs or other border adjustment measures by the United States and the European Union to protect energy-intensive trade-exposed industries.

Finally, the 2030 target should be fairly easy to meet. By then, the most manufacturing-intensive phase of China’s development will be complete and hundreds of millions more people will have been lifted into the middle class. Emissions are likely to stabilise by that date even without the joint statement.

For China, climate action remains subordinate to the primary goals of economic development and political and social stability. The joint statement enshrines China’s right to tackle climate change in its own way and at its own pace.

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