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 Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama at a press conference following their talks at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 12, 2014. (Photo: Xinhua/Liu Weibing)

US/China Emission Targets Should 'Be Floor, Not Ceiling' of Climate Action

Agreement announced in Beijing is a positive sign, say campaigners, but "a drop in the ocean" compared to what's need from the world's two largest polluters

Jon Queally

After months of secret negotiations, a surprise joint announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jingping revealed the world's two largest contributors to global warming have made a non-binding agreement to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions over the next fifteen years and stated their hope that such pledges will spur other nations to follow suit ahead of next year's international climate talks in Paris.

According to a statement on the deal from the White House, the U.S. "intends" to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent "below its 2005 level in 2025" and "to make best efforts" to meet the higher target. Meanwhile, "China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent by 2030."

Though termed a "historic agreement" by President Obama and a "game changer" by others who noted the importance of the two economic giants putting forward these commitments, other green campaigners warned against giving the non-binding and amorphous agreement more credit than it deserves.

"The US and China reaffirming their commitment to limiting global warming to 2°C should send shockwaves through the financial markets, because the only way to meet that target is by leaving 80% of fossil fuel reserves underground." —May Boeve,

“The cuts pledged by President Obama are nowhere near what the US needs to cut if it was serious about preventing runaway climate change. These US voluntary pledges are not legally binding and are not based on science or equity,” said Sara Shaw, the climate justice and energy coordinator for Friends of the Earth International.

As Ben Adler points out at Grist:

You might notice a lot of wiggle room in that language. [...] The White House release refers to these goals as statements of “intent.” They don’t promise or even “agree” to hit these targets, they merely “intend” to.

That may sound a little weak, but it’s necessary. Remember, foreign treaties require approval from a two-thirds supermajority of the U.S. Senate before they can be ratified. There’s no way Senate Republicans would vote for an emission-reduction treaty. But by merely jointly announcing with China their intentions, the Obama administration avoids signing an actual treaty. So the Senate can’t formally stop this agreement.

At the press conference in Beijing where the agreement was announced, Obama said, "As the world’s largest economies and greatest emitters of greenhouse gases we have special responsibility to lead the global effort against climate change. I am proud we can announce a historic agreement. I commend President Xi, his team and the Chinese government for their making to slow, peak and then reverse China’s carbon emissions."

"Both sides have yet to reach the goal of a truly game-changing climate relationship. There is a clear expectation of more ambition from these two economies whose emissions trajectories define the global response to climate change. Today’s announcements should only be the floor and not the ceiling of enhanced actions." —Nic Clyde, Greenpeace Australia-Pacific

For his part, Xi Jinping added that China and the U.S. want to "make sure international climate change negotiations will reach agreement as scheduled at the Paris conference in 2015 and agreed to deepen practical co-operation on clean energy, environmental protection and other areas."

Despite the positive development of mutual cooperation between the two countries that have stubbornly refused to make such emission reduction pledges in the past, climate campaigners reminded the public that when it comes to the science of global warming and climate change the devil continues to be in the details.

Dipti Bhatnagar, also of Friends of the Earth International, said that though the announcment may be "spun as a landmark" development by some, the reality is that "the US pledges are just a drop in the ocean. These figures are very far from being the sea of change we urgently need from the US government.”

The better news, said Bhatnagar, is that China is taking the "fight against climate change ever more seriously and intends to peak its emissions in next 15 years. We urge China and all nations to urgently switch from emissions-causing dirty energy to community-based renewable energy.”

Nic Clyde, the senior climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Australia-Pacific, said that the U.S. and China have not yet reached "the goal of a truly game-changing climate relationship."

“Today's climate announcement by the US and China may be spun as a landmark, but in reality the US pledges are just a drop in the ocean." —Dipti Bhatnagar, Friends of the Earth International

He added, "There is a clear expectation of more ambition from these two economies whose emissions trajectories define the global response to climate change. Today’s announcements should only be the floor and not the ceiling of enhanced actions."

In response to the announcement, Greenpeace USA senior legislative Representative Kyle Ash said:    

Although some climate denying politicians and fossil fuel executives will continue to howl at any effort to reduce carbon pollution, this joint announcement of increased ambition from the two largest carbon polluters shows that their efforts to derail progress are increasingly irrelevant to global efforts to address climate change. Despite efforts of climate denier politicians like Senators McConnell and Inhofe to protect the fossil fuel industry at any cost, broad majorities of Americans support climate action and clean, renewable energy.

This early and joint announcement from the US and China is welcome, and should increase the chances of a strong climate treaty next year. However, President Obama’s 2025 emissions reduction targets are not strong enough, and the Greenpeace Energy [R]evolution scenario shows that we can reduce carbon pollution 40% below 2005 levels by 2025, while simultaneously generating more employment and a stronger economy.

According to professor of history Juan Cole, who runs the influential Informed Comment blog, "It is a sad commentary that this agreement is actually an improvement on previous goals of the two countries. And it is better to have an agreement with firm dates and targets than to have the two carbon monsters take turns hiding behind each other at climate talks. But this agreement isn’t a commitment to reduce carbon emissions on a timescale appropriate to the magnitude of the crisis. It mostly kicks the ball down the road."

In reaction to the announcement, executive director of May Boeve said the U.S-China pledges could be welcomed, but only if the public understands the real implications of agreeing to meet the 2°C  target. In a statement, she said:

It’s no coincidence that after the biggest climate mobilization in history, world leaders are stepping up their ambition on climate action. This announcement is a sign that President Obama is taking his climate legacy seriously and is willing to stand up to big polluters. But the real proof will be in the pudding. There’s no way approving the Keystone XL pipeline and additional fossil fuel development is compatible with this pathway. President Obama needs to build on this announcement and continue to take on climate deniers in the oil industry and Congress to ensure a clean future.

Today’s announcement also strengthens the case for fossil fuel divestment. The US and China reaffirming their commitment to limiting global warming to 2°C should send shockwaves through the financial markets, because the only way to meet that target is by leaving 80% of fossil fuel reserves underground. The industry’s business plan is simply incompatible with the pathways laid out today. It’s time to get out of fossil fuels and invest in climate solutions.

As the climate action group TckTckTck points out:

According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the most comprehensive climate change report ever produced, carbon emissions need to drop to zero by 2100."

And many NGOs say that the world has to phase out fossil fuels and phase in 100% renewables by the middle of the century, to keep the global warming under 2°C.

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