Here are the world’s four largest emitters of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and cement production. In 2013, China accounted for twice of America’s carbon dioxide output. Collectively, the world blasted 36 billion tons of CO2 into the climate system – nearly ¾ of the total global burden of greenhouse gases.To say that China, the US and the EU28 need to cut their emissions, along with India, South Africa, Russia, Brazil and Indonesia (because of deforestation in the case of these two), and many others, in order for the world to avoid catastrophic climate change would be an understatement. Last month, the Europeans made a huge commitment. They’re going to make nothing less than a 40% reduction of their greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2030.
This week China and the US took a bold, historically important step forward, together, to move us toward climate health. What’s new? The US advanced its commitment from the Copenhagen conference in 2009. President Obama pledged there to reduce US GHGs 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. We’re well on the way. (See this chart.) The new commitment is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. John Holdren, the White House Science Advisor, and John Podesta, the administration’s key player on climate and energy, describe this goal as “both ambitious and achievable, grounded in an intensive analysis of what actions can be taken under existing law.” (More about the “existing law” part of this and the politics below.)
The announcement took place in China. This is an important sign, it seems to me, as the Chinese would seem to the world to be firmly committed to the new policy if they’re making the pledge in their capital. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced, for the first time, the government’s intention to peak Chinese CO2 emissions around 2030. Before this week, their commitment, made in Copenhagen, was to reduce the carbon intensity of their economy over time – to slow down the rate of growth of their carbon dioxide emissions. China also said they’d make a good effort to peak before 2030. One way to reach the goal is to enhance renewables. They have a target of greatly expanding the share of “zero-emission sources” in primary energy, namely renewables and nuclear.
China has been not only a tremendous producer of clean energy technology, primarily solar photovoltaic modules but also wind turbines and solar hot water heaters, but an increasingly important consumer. They have been setting a breathtaking pace, for instance, of installing PV,and for wind, leading the world in installed capacity, with plans to more than double their wind capacity by 2020.
It is not a minor quibble, however, to note that one of their “zero-emission” sources, nuclear, is anything but. One relatively conservative analysis has put the life-cycle GHGs from nuclear power at 66 gCO2e/kWh versus 10 for onshore wind, 13 for concentrated solar power, and 32 for PV. Coal, of course, is in the range of 1,000 gCO2e/kWh. Two other problems with nuclear are cost and time. If the goal is to have clean, reliable, sustainable power, the Chinese – and everybody else for that matter – could spend their money much more efficiently and get the job done much more quickly building out wind, solar, and biomass. (See Amory Lovins’s important analysis here.)
In any event, John Kerry, a climate warrior of long standing, had an eloquent op-ed in the New York Times in which he said “Our announcement can inject momentum into the global climate negotiations, which resume in less than three weeks in Lima, Peru, and culminate next year in Paris. The commitment of both presidents to take ambitious action in our own countries, and work closely to remove obstacles on the road to Paris, sends an important signal that we must get this agreement done, that we can get it done, and that we will get it done.”
The implications for the rest of the world are large. Europe is doing its part, and now China and the US have pledged to do theirs. There is no place now for countries to hide and claim that they can’t and won’t make serious commitments. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change noted “This positive momentum opens the door for all major economies and in particular all other industrialized nations to bring forward their contributions to the Paris agreement in a timely fashion over the coming months.”
The shock wave in the US from our Republican brothers and sisters was astounding, but predictable. How Republicans Are Freaking Out About The Historic U.S.- China Climate Agreement is the headline from Climate Progress. Two things, though: First, the deal undercuts the traditional Republican (and fossil-fueled Democratic) argument that action by the US without a Chinese commitment will put the US at a serious economic disadvantage. (See the Byrd-Hagel resolution which killed any possibility of US participation in the Kyoto Protocol.) The world’s most dynamic economy is now on record to reduce its emissions.
Second, in a fascinating lead story today in the NY Times from the excellent Coral Davenport, we learn that the American people seem to be far ahead of most of the GOP leadership, not to mention the Tea Party, in their concern over climate change and desire to take action. In fact, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, has recent data to indicate the support is close to overwhelming. So maybe the Republicans are taking the wrong tack. This will likely tell in the presidential campaign coming up.
Of course, there has been unremitting opposition to greenhouse gas regulation in the US. The heat is rising in the aftermath of the recent mid-term elections here. However, President Obama’s comprehensive plan is essentially legally bulletproof. God bless the far-seeing actors, in government and out, whose bipartisan effort to create the Clean Air Act has served this nation so superbly.