Friday February 21, 2020


November 13, 2014

President Obama’s long-awaited trip to Beijing this week to attend the APEC Economic Leaders summit and meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping ended on a surprising note. In a joint press conference on November 12, the two presidents announced the signing of a series of agreements on multiple issues that have posed a challenge for U.S.-China relations in the past. The deals include loosening visa restrictions, reducing tariffs on American tech products, and agreeing  to avoid military confrontation by strengthening communications and setting safety regulations. By far the most significant news to come out of Obama’s visit is the announcement of a climate deal between the U.S. and China, the two largest contributors to greenhouse gases in the world. The bilateral climate deal is the result of months of secret diplomatic negotiations at the highest level in both governments.

The climate deal sees both the U.S. and China committing to reduce carbon emissions and setting goals for energy usage over the next decade or so. The United States has promised to cut carbon emissions between 26% and 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Meanwhile, China has agreed to set peak CO2 emissions by 2030, with an intention to hit peak levels earlier if possible. China also pledged to have 20% of the country’s energy supply come from cleaner sources, such as wind and solar power, by this date.

In a New York Times Op-ed on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry wrote about the importance of the U.S. and China working together to solve climate issues. Even if the United States “somehow eliminated all of our domestic greenhouse gas emissions,” he writes, “it still wouldn’t be enough to counteract the carbon pollution coming from China and the rest of the world,” and vice-versa. But, together, the United States and China can set a precedent for the rest of the world to follow. Other nations have been able to avoid making their own ambitious climate-related goals by rationalizing that their reforms would make no difference to climate change if the U.S. and China were not also reforming. Now, however, they have no excuse.  Activists hope this deal will ensure the Paris Conference, convening late next year, begins on a strong point.

For future prospects of reducing climate change and environmental degradation, the climate accords are a bittersweet event. Few U.S.-China watchers expected such a pledge from China. The Asian giant has proven reluctant in the past to commit to specific targets, particularly targets as ambitious as those agreed upon this week. China’s new willingness to take responsibility for climate issues gives potential to a promising new chapter in combating global climate change. Though the proposed goals are much more ambitious than expected, they are not as ambitious as many environmental activists had hoped.

Experts have concluded that China’s CO2 emissions would peak naturally in 2030 as part of the slowing economy. If this is the case, China’s new commitment is simply an acknowledgement of current trends.  Additionally, scientists have remarked that the commitment must be still larger if the international community seeks to save the planet from the effects of climate change. Some argue the U.S. should pressure China to set an earlier year for the emissions peak. The U.S., argues a Slate reporter, still has a great deal of clout in China and should not be intimidated by Xi Jinping. Yet, this climate deal marks a bright point in U.S.-China relations. Leaders from both countries took a leap of faith in trusting one another, and any attempt to strong-arm China into making U.S. dictated decisions would add unnecessary tension to a potentially improving relationship.

Even with calls for more ambitious goals, the U.S. and China already face a daunting task in holding up their end of the bargain. Sam Roggeveen from the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia, remarked that in order to meet these goals, the U.S. must double the pace of its carbon pollution reduction.” China must introduce enough zero-emission energy sources to generate more energy than all of the coal plants already existing in China.

The long timeline for reaching these goals means that any number of barriers might arise, not the least of which being domestic politics. In the United States, Congress Republicans have already spoken out against the climate deal, arguing that China will not honor its side of the agreement and that emissions cuts require overly restrictive regulations on businesses. In China, the central government will run up against local officials who stand to gain less from a greener economy than they do from industrial expansion.

While the deals do not by any means signal an erosion of U.S.-China tensions, they do prove just how effective diplomacy can be when done correctly and with a clear vision. The U.S. and China not only gained new ground in resolving long-standing issues, such as visa restrictions and protectionist trade policies, buts also exhibited their willingness to forego petty squabbles for the sake of progress.

For more information on this topic, consult the following sources:

The Atlantic- “Is the U.S.-China Climate Pact as Big a Deal as It Seems?”

Fortune – “Smog-choked china cuts a climate deal with Obama, and tries to tame its coal beast”

The Guardian – “Secret talks and a personal letter: how the US-China climate deal was done”

The New York Times – “China, America, and Our Warming Planet”

Reuters – “China, U.S. agree limits on emissions, but experts see little new”

Scientific American – “Everything You Need to Know about the U.S.-China Climate Change Agreement”

Slate – “Let’s Make a Deal”

Time “Experts are Skeptical Over the U.S.-China Emissions Deal”

The Washington Post – “China’s pledge to cut greenhouse gases eliminates excuse for other nations”

The White House – “U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change”

Xinhua – “China, U.S. announce ambitious climate change goals”

China Daily(中国日报) – “中美发布应对气候变化联合声明携手降低温室气体排放”

Xinhua (新华) – 中美联合减排承诺有助保持APEC蓝“

Compiled and edited by Molly Bradtke