Major climate breakthrough: U.S. and China announce emissions cuts

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, smiles after a group of children waved flags and flowers to cheer him during a welcome ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014.

In a surprise breakthrough on Thursday, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled new targets for cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. At a joint news conference in Beijing, the two leaders laid out their respective commitments, which were broader than expected.
Obama said the new U.S. goal is to cut emissions by 26% to 28% by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. The U.S. is on course to most likely meet Obama's previous commitment from 2009, which is to reduce emissions by 17% compared to 2005 levels by 2020. The new goal therefore commits the U.S. to a much faster pace of emissions cuts than previously announced, and, if fulfilled, would keep the country on course to cut emissions by 80% relative to 2005 levels by 2050.
For China's part, Xi announced a target to have his country's greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2030 at the latest. China also announced a goal to increase the share of renewable energy it uses to about 20% by 2030.
"This is a major milestone in the U.S.-China relationship," Obama said at the joint press conference in Beijing. "This is an ambitious goal, but it is an achievable goal."
While China is not announcing absolute cuts to its emissions, the 2030 goal is a step further from what the country announced at the U.N. Climate Summit in New York in September. At that point, China's vice premier told world leaders that China would for the first time seek to stop its emissions growth at some point, without specifying a year.
China's emissions have continued to rise as it builds new coal-fired power plants to meet its increasing demand for electricity, but the country has been plagued by noxious air pollution, which has increased pressure on the government to improve air quality.
China is the top global emitter of greenhouse gases, with the U.S. following close behind. However, the U.S. leads when it comes to historical responsibility for global warming, since most of the emissions to date have come from the U.S. and other industrialized nations.
Together, the U.S. and China account for about 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As the top two emitters in the world, the U.S. and China are the main players in these talks, and any announcements by them will be closely watched.
The breakthrough announced in Beijing undercuts efforts among some developing countries to continue to hold out on making emissions commitments of their own, seeking instead for more ambitious targets and monetary incentives from industrialized nations.
The next round of U.N. climate talks are scheduled to begin in Lima, Peru in less than three weeks. This conference will lay the groundwork for a meeting in Paris in December of next year, at which a new global climate agreement is due to be signed. The world is facing a deadline of 2015 in order to finalize a new agreement to cover the period beyond 2020, when the current Kyoto Protocol expires.
Obama said the agreement is aimed in part at spurring more action by other nations to secure an ambitious climate agreement.
"In addition, by making this announcement today, together, we hope to encourage all major economies to be ambitious — all countries, developing and developed — to work across some of the old divides so we can conclude a strong global climate agreement next year," Obama said.
The exact form of a post-2020 agreement is unclear, as Republican opposition in Congress means that the Obama administration could not submit a binding treaty for Senate approval. Instead, the U.S.-China climate agreement references a "a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force" under a 1992 U.N. climate treaty, that is applicable to all countries.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has made climate change a top priority, hailed the announcements, saying they increase the odds that a successful treaty will be negotiated by 2015, according to a statement from his spokesman.
"Today, China and the United States have demonstrated the leadership that the world expects of them," the statement reads. "This leadership demonstrated by the Governments of the world’s two largest economies will give the international community an unprecedented chance to succeed at reaching a meaningful, universal agreement in 2015."
The agreement is being called a major breakthrough by the environmental community and by policymakers who have long been working on this issue.
"This is, in my view, the most important bilateral climate announcement ever," David Sandalow, formerly a top environmental official at the White House and the Energy Department, told the Associated Press. "It sends the signal the two largest emitters in the world are working together to address this problem."The United States and China have just turned the international climate change negotiation on its head," said Neena Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, in a statement. "With this announcement, President Obama and President Xi have demonstrated historic leadership and shown the rest of the world that developed and developing countries can work together to address the threat of climate change."

Recent scientific reports have made clear — as little as a decade — to begin to make significant cuts in planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid dangerous impacts such as drastic amounts of sea level rise, increased species extinction rates, more severe extreme weather events and other costly consequences.
In fact, scientists recommended that countries reach negative emissions, with the forests and oceans taking in more carbon than humans emit by burning fossil fuels, by the year 2100.
Obama said the announced steps put the U.S. and China "on a path to achieving the deep emissions reductions by advanced economies that the scientific community says is necessary to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change."
Environmental leaders and climate activists greeted the news with optimism, expressing hope that the goals could be strengthened further. “These landmark commitments to curtail carbon pollution are a necessary, critical step forward in the global fight against climate change," said Frances Beineke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. "We look forward to working with both governments to strengthen their efforts — because we are confident that both can achieve even greater reductions.”
Former vice president and climate activist Al Gore said in a statement that this agreement marks the start of "a new chapter" in global climate talks.
"President Xi Jinping’s announcement that Chinese emissions will peak around 2030 is a signal of groundbreaking progress from the world’s largest polluter," Gore said.
Congressional opponents of U.S. emissions cuts have long pointed to China's lack of emissions commitments as a reason for holding off on taking potentially costly actions at home. This development may help reduce the effectiveness of that argument.
In the wake of the Republican electoral gains in the midterm elections, though, it may be a struggle for the Obama administration to stay on track for meeting current climate commitments, let alone more ambitious ones. Republicans have vowed to weaken landmark U.S. EPA regulations announced in June that would reduce emissions from existing coal-fired power plants nationwide, and it is clear that President Obama intends to pursue additional climate actions via executive order, rather than through legislation.
In a statement released to the press, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky criticized the new climate plans as part of a White House-led "ideological war on coal."
"Easing the burden already created by EPA regulations will be a priority for me in the new Congress," McConnell said.

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