Can A Deal Between The Worlds Biggest Polluters Save the Environment?

November 23rd 2014

When President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands last week, formalizing a landmark climate agreement that culminated from months of secret negotiations, the world was rightfully surprised. After all, it’s not often that the world’s two biggest polluters can come to an agreement on much of anything when issues like curbing pollution are in the crosshairs. 

In the wake of the agreements, as is usually the case with anything touching climate change, opinions fell into two distinct camps. On the one hand, exasperated environmentalists hailed the agreement as a watershed moment in the fight against climate change and as an important first step. On the other, skeptics suspected nothing more than hot air, dubious of China’s commitments, and pointing out that both countries were already on the road to reducing emissions. As for which side is right? Well, the answer may be a little bit of both. 

As far as stipulations go, the goals for each country are markedly more ambitious than they have been in the past. For the U.S., when 2025 rolls around, carbon emissions have been targeted to fall by between 26 and 28 percent of 2005 level emissions—roughly double the reach of the previous 17 percent goal decrease from the 2005 to 2020 period, set in 2009. China, on the other hand, pledged to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner—an unprecedented cap. China is also estimating that around 20 percent of its total energy production mix will come from clean sources, like solar power and windmills by that time. 

Details aside, the announcement itself is an admittedly big step. Climate experts have said that unless the largest polluters can put their differences aside on the issue, other nations are unlikely to move forward in a meaningful way.  

While these goals send a strong message to the world, and push other countries to make strides leading up to next year’s climate summit in Paris, they also deliver a blow to opposing forces on the home front. A New York Times op-ed points out that it “cuts the ground from under people like Mitch McConnell, the next Senate majority leader, and others who have long argued that there is no point in taking aggressive steps against greenhouse gases as long as major developing countries refused to do likewise.”  

But detractors remain doubtful that the absence of the “China” argument will stop climate deniers, much less a Republican Congress, from pushing back against these goals as the years roll by and Obama leaves office. 

Beyond partisan concerns though, analysts say that the new climate pact relies on and can be successfully carried out through policies largely in place. 

“The commitment on the U.S. side is a summation of a variety of commitments that have already been made,” Ethan Zindler, an analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told the Daily Beast. Because of already tightening Environmental Protection Agency standards for automobile efficiency, coupled with impending power plant regulations and potential measures to curb methane leaks in oil and gas production, the Obama administration is already on track to meeting the agreement stipulations.

Others are suspicious that Chinese commitments to reducing emissions may be driven by ulterior motives, or at least, convenient ones. One likely theory is that lower emissions promises quiets a growing anger over smog levels among the population while simultaneously showing that China is willing to cooperate with global powers on legitimate issues. Others have complained that China’s 2030 greenhouse gas peak goal was redundant—a term skeptics use to describe the agreements as a whole—seeing as the same year will already be the country’s urbanization, population growth, and carbon emissions peak. So if the agreements to skeptics were nothing but a formalized joint acknowledgement of existing policies, what’s the big deal? 

At the end of the day, it seems right to acknowledge that although some promises may simply be reprises, anything that might spur serious conversation and action against the present and ever-growing threat of climate change is worthwhile—especially leading up to the new climate treaty that will emerge from the Paris climate summit next year. 

Speaking in the Times, Hal Harvey, who runs a policy research group called Energy Innovation, said that even though some goals of the agreement could be seen as redundant, “in effect, it ratifies stuff that’s underway, […] I still think it’s important.”   Though the effects of the agreement will happen over the course of many years, and though we’ll be forced to judge its worth retrospectively, we can agree that the world is currently in dire need of change—and anything addressing that need is a landmark.