The Corner

Obama Unveils Secret Climate Deal with China to Do . . . What Exactly?

In a clear indication that President Obama isn’t giving up on his agenda even after losing both houses of Congress, news broke tonight that the U.S. and China have reached an agreement setting out goals to combat climate change. The deal: China has set out a date by which it will stop increasing carbon emissions, 2030, while the president has promised the U.S., which is emitting less and less carbon every year, will cut emissions significantly faster than we’ve currently pledged to, especially between 2020 and 2025.

The U.S. has pledged that existing emissions-reduction schedule to . . . no one in particular, and China does not exactly have a sterling record of sticking to international agreements (hello, Hong Kong). President Obama announced the original U.S. goal at an otherwise fruitless meeting in Denmark in 2009 and the U.S. has almost been on track to meet it, though a good bit of that is due to the global economic downturn. Today’s agreement is not binding in any particular way, and neither country announced actions that are going to slow emissions significantly. The key action provisions, according to Mother Jones:

‐ A call to boost trade in “green” goods, including energy efficiency technology and resilient infrastructure, kicked off by a tour of China next spring by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

The U.S. will have to find other ways to reduce its emissions noticeably more quickly than it already is, by 26–28 percent from 2005 levels come the year 2025. And China, the country that’s opening a new coal power plant every eight to ten days, will have to, in the White House’s words, “deploy an additional 800–1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”

The deal is a nice one for the president: Both he and Xi Jinping of China get to promise bold targets on climate, without detailing the specific and costly methods necessary to get there.

And the president can just pretend China’s promises are credible, which will be an interesting proposition to test as China’s economy slows. The press conference about the deal tonight wasn’t exactly what you’d expect from a pair where one party is much more eager about the announcement than the other: Xi straight up ignored a question from a reporter about why China has kicked most U.S. journalists out of the country. President Obama was eager to put on a face of comity, though: He stated (not for the first time) that the U.S. doesn’t support Tibetan independence and that China’s current violation of its agreement with the people of Hong Kong is a matter to be settled between the two populations (which is a stretch, given that the territory was handed back to China on the grounds that it would move toward democracy).

The president does have an ambitious environmental agenda in action — as Politico notes this evening, a number of environmental regulations are being finalized or proposed over the next few months, pushed back until after the 2012 and 2014 elections, though many aren’t carbon-related. (China also has something of an emissions agenda, and isn’t way off track of what they promised this evening.)

Bur the president’s current plans won’t, all else being equal, get the U.S. anywhere near the targets he just set alongside China. To get there, we could see more regulations under this president or a future Democratic president/Congress, or private-sector innovation and state-level regulation could get us on track anyway. The fact that the U.S. is on track to hit the relatively ambitious emissions targets Obama set in 2009 is partly explained by the shale-gas revolution, which has replaced some carbon-intensive coal-burning with cheap, cleaner natural gas. It’s also explained by a huge recession and slow American economic growth.

The White House has expressed hope that the U.S.–China agreement, in addition to the possibility that the president will at some point announce more aid to developing countries to cope with climate change, will spur a global agreement on emissions cuts.

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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