You probably saw the announcement recently when President Obama was in Beijing that the United States and China are jointly committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. China stated that it would get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and that it would reach its peak greenhouse gas emissions in 2030. The U.S is committed to a 30 percent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. This is the first time China has ever agreed to cap its emissions—to date, China has only committed to reduce its greenhouse gas intensity. So this is a major step down the road to Paris in 2015 and deep decarbonization.
But does it really require anything from China? And does the deal require the U.S. to do anything it isn’t already doing? The announcement came during the week after the mid-term elections, so Republican leaders vowed to hold hearings and possibly to reject the deal if it comes before them. As I’ll explain here, though, the deal does not need to come to Congress—because the President hasn’t committed to do anything domestically that he isn’t already planning to do under the Clean Air Act. The 30 percent reduction target by 2030 is consistent with existing regulatory efforts by EPA to achieve a 17% reduction by 2020 and a 25% reduction by 2025. And, as I’ve previously explained, the President can sign Executive Agreements with other nations that do not need Senate ratification if they simply implement existing domestic law. So the deal with China is a perfect setup for an agreement in Paris.
I spent two weeks this past summer teaching renewable energy law and policy in Beijing, so I’m particularly interested in China’s commitment to a 20 percent renewable energy base by 2030. Admittedly, it will include both hydro and nuclear power—but it will also require significant expansion of solar and wind power as well as modernization of the Chinese electrical power grid to integrate those sources. This will further feed the development of China’s export-oriented renewable energy sector, where China sees a rapidly-growing global market. So there are good economic development reasons for China to follow through here.
But increasing renewables isn’t enough: China has to cut its coal use to peak its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. And that is something China has announced it will do by 2020–because domestic politics compel it. Some skeptics doubt China will ever wean itself from dirty coal, but the rise of an urban middle class coupled with horrendous air quality in northeast China has already led the nation’s elite to call for shifting coal to other areas or to ban its use for non-power plant uses in Beijing. Make no mistake: the primary driver of China’s decision to cap coal use in 2020 and peak greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 is human health and political stability, not greenhouse gases. But the result will be climate-friendlier policies in China that now create the space for a global deal.
China and the U.S. are the top two greenhouse gas emitters in the world. The European Union is the third biggest emitter, and it recently committed to a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 emissions. This is a very significant decrease (even though the 1990 baseline is not equal to the 2005 baseline–because the EU has been more ambitious already under Kyoto). All together, China, the US, and the EU account for a whopping 55 percent of all global greenhouse gases. That’s the same percentage of global emissions that were covered by the Kyoto Protocol. So those three players alone can bend the curve downward.
Now we need to get India and Russia to join the road to Paris–which I’ll discuss in my next post. I just returned from two weeks in India and I have a new appreciation of the challenges it faces.