Science

China and US agree to cut carbon

A historic agreement has been reached between China and America, the two most polluting countries in the world. With China emitting a jaw dropping 9860 mega tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2012 and America following with 5190 mega tonnes, this deal is a milestone in a long journey for a low-carbon world. However, the amazing thing about this particular deal is that in the past America and China have been consistently dragging their feet over lowering carbon emissions – we only have to look at the Kyoto Protocol for an example.
In this deal China has agreed to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 at the very latest. This means that China will start to bring down its carbon emissions by 2030. As well as this, China has also announced that it will use zero emission sources for 20% of its power generation. This means that China will aim to produce 800–1,000 gigawatts of low carbon energy by 2030, which is greatly needed for the climate as China gets 68% of its power from coal, the most polluting energy source available.

The 1,000 gigawatts of energy translates to enough power for the whole of the United States. China has also planned massive subsidies for green energy in the hope that green energy will be able to out-compete fossil fuels. This coupled with America agreeing that it will reduce its carbon emissions by 26–28% below its 2005 levels by 2030.

In comparison to some other countries this deal may not seem like enough. But we need to take into account that, until recently, both China and America both refused to even consider reducing emissions. This deal also sets a precedent that other countries can follow particularly those who have been skeptical about reducing emissions, such as India which is the third most polluting country.
Unfortunately we will need to reduce carbon emissions much more rapidly than our current efforts if we want to stay below the two-degree warming threshold. This may also encourage other nations to take carbon dioxide reduction seriously as most other countries were resistant to the idea because China and America weren’t taking part in emission reduction. This deal also sets up a very good bargaining position for America and China to try and convince other developing countries such as India to take part in an international emission reduction deal.

Unfortunately there are lots of holes in this agreement, for example, aviation emissions aren’t included and this deal isn’t legally binding. However, with the EU saying it plans to cut emissions by 40% by 2030, we now have over half of the most polluting countries on some form of emission reduction plan. Finally the international community is getting their act together and if things continue with India following in 2015 hopefully the world will stay below the two degree threshold.

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Analysis – Christopher Donaldson considers the political implications of the new low-carbon agreement.

Once the surprise of the announcement subsided, attention turned to the viability of actually meeting these targets. For the US, the future looks grim. With the control of Congress now with the Republicans since their recent mid-term victory there is little prospect of new climate change legislation being passed – the party are notoriously anti-environmentalist and anti-regulation. However, the White House claims the new commitments are achievable under existing legislation, such as the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants.

China faces an equally pressing challenge to meet its commitments, not just from a divided political system but the technical challenge to achieve the scale of renewable energy required. A 20% increase in energy from zero-emission sources may not sound like much, but for a country with the population and energy needs of China, it is vast. Even the White House acknowledged that the renewable energy that China must generate will be “close to total current generation capacity in the United States”.

On the other hand, China may be one of the only countries where this energy shift would be possible, owing to the ability of the Politburo to undertake large-scale development projects on incredibly short timescales.

A short time after the agreement was announced, the White House also pledged $3bn to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) – a global fund created by the United Nations to help lower-income countries reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and also adapt to more extreme climate conditions in the future. This pledge was immediately followed by a $1.5bn contribution by the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, showing renewed commitment by richer nations to stump up the cash for their previous carbon emissions.

It is hoped that the US-China deal and the pledges to the GCF will drive momentum for the UN climate change talks later this month in Peru. Before now, the negotiations surrounding country’s plans to reduce GHGs have been slow, as lower-income nations saw little financial commitment by higher-income countries – some of the world’s biggest polluters – to tackle the problem.

While promises by the world’s two largest polluters to cut GHGs emission should be welcomed, Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council said the international community needed to go further. In particular, he urged the rest of the G20 members to announce their own emission reduction targets before the crucial talks at Paris in 2015, where a global agreement to large cuts in emissions is expected. The stronger and more united the international community is in its aim to tackle climate change, the harder it will be for richer countries to continue to support fossil fuel use at the expense of people’s lives in poorer countries.

25/11/2014

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