Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources
Shane Tomlinson
Shane Tomlinson
Former Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources
The joint announcement on climate change contributions by the United States and China marks a step-change in diplomacy in the run up to a potential global deal in Paris next year.
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping watch a fireworks display during the APEC Leaders meeting on 10 November 2014 in Beijing. Photo by Getty Images.US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping watch a fireworks display during the APEC Leaders meeting on 10 November 2014 in Beijing. Photo by Getty Images.

The timing of the announcement will inject momentum into the international negotiations, coming at an important moment before the next round in Lima in early December, and ahead of all countries submitting their intended contributions in the first quarter of 2015. Other countries, especially developed and emerging economies like Australia, Canada, Japan, India, Brazil and South Africa, will be recalibrating their offers in light of the US-China statement.

In the statement, the United States says it intends to achieve economy-wide targets of reducing emissions by 26-28% below the 2005 level in 2025; while China intends to achieve a peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030. This builds on the recent deal in October by the European Union to reduce its emissions by at least 40% in 2030 from a 1990 baseline.

This is the first time that China has put a date on peak emissions, and it is highly symbolic that it made the pledge alongside the United States. China deserves credit from the international community for stepping up to the plate and showing leadership on this issue. It is equally important that President Obama has signaled continuing commitment to act on climate change. Indeed, whether Obama is able to make this deal stick despite resistance from the new Republican-controlled Congress is now a critical question for his legacy, as well as for future US-China cooperation.

The substance of both countries' announcements falls short of what scientists say is needed to avoid dangerous climate change. The US goal of 26-28% in 2025 is less than what US legislation proposed at the time of the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 was supposed to achieve - this implied a 30% reduction in 2025. To put this in context, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that current efforts put us on a pathway for 3.7 to 4.8 degrees celsius of global warming – far above the 2 degrees target that governments have agreed to work towards.

The level of ambition in the Chinese offer is not yet clear, because the volume of peak CO2 has not been announced and there is some flexibility on the peak year -‘around 2030’ but as soon as possible. Some experts had hoped for an earlier peak in 2025, but a near-2030 peak is not necessarily incompatible with a global pathway to 2 degrees this century. The 'shape of the emissions curve' – when emissions start to plateau, and how sharply they fall after the peak – is just as important.

The 20% non-fossil goal pushes further than the IEA’s latest ‘new policies’ scenario (this has 18% of non-fossil energy in 2030) but falls short of the 26% in the more climate secure ‘450’ scenario. Nevertheless, based on IEA figures, 20% means that the amount of energy produced by non-fossil energy will more than double from today’s levels by 2030, helping to reduce coal use and improve air quality. Energy efficiency will be a crucial ingredient – if China uses less energy overall, fewer additional turbines, solar panels, reactors and electric vehicles will be needed to meet the 20% target.

So while the announcement represents a big step forward, there is more work to be done – and all to play for. The statement that 'both sides intend to continue to work to increase ambition over time' is important in this context. The practical areas of cooperation contained in the announcement should help to make higher ambition possible, starting with the commitment to broker a bilateral trade deal on low carbon goods in April 2015. This can help expand the global market for green technology and avoid damaging trade disputes like the one which has dogged the solar industry. A green trade agreement would be another boost for China-US cooperation in the run up to the Paris summit in late 2015.

Securing an ambitious global climate deal that sets the world on a path to maintain climate stability requires many additional pieces to be put together, not least delivering on promises of financial support for developing countries.

Another key task for negotiators in Lima will be to agree the architecture and mechanisms for a landmark deal in Paris next year. Given the level of ambition implied in current contributions by the major economies, it is important to include a review mechanism to revisit targets in 2020 and ratchet up ambition in line with climate science every five years. Consideration should also be given to achieving a goal of ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2050. Lima is also expected to make important progress on measurement, reporting and verification mechanisms, to ensure transparency when tracking country contributions in future.

There is still a long way to go before a meaningful deal in Paris can be agreed, but this should not detract from this China-US announcement. The fact that the world’s two largest economies have forged a deep level of cooperation on climate is truly a game-changing moment, and one that will resonate in other areas of foreign policy. In Copenhagen it was a stand off between the US and China that was key in preventing a final deal. By coming together on this announcement it is clear that a new era of climate diplomacy has begun.

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