Cautious Welcome for the Unexpected US-China Climate Agreement

The United States and China reached an agreement on climate change, committed to reducing their carbon emissions, and urged other countries to do the same. This is a big deal for global warming. But many are skeptical about whether this will actually work given the history of these two countries’ different approaches to tackling pollution.

This blog post discusses how this agreement could be beneficial or harmful depending on how it’s implemented.

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that it could be harmful, because China has no intention of reducing its emissions — not now, not ever. The author’s argument is basically threefold: China will never reduce its emissions because that would slow economic growth, China is too powerful and the US has no leverage over China to enforce the agreement, and little will change in any case since Chinese state-owned enterprises control much of its coal and oil production and don’t want to see a reduction in their profit.

If these arguments are true, then China’s agreement with the US is nothing more than empty promises. But are they true?

First, it’s very difficult to predict whether China will reduce its emissions in the future. It has made promises before that then went unfulfilled because of economic difficulties or lack of political will. Without some sort of outside enforcement mechanism, it might be expected that China would renege on this, too.

However, the timing of the agreement suggests that Chinese leaders view it as important. The US and China reached a deal one day before the start of a summit in Peru where representatives from nearly 200 countries will negotiate a global plan to fight climate change. It sends an important signal that both of these countries are serious about reducing their emissions.

Second, China’s economic power might be the reason that the US needs to reach an agreement with them in the first place. However, if it wasn’t for these differences, then why commit to reaching a deal at all? Differences don’t mean that this sort of agreement can never happen — they just suggest that it’s more complicated.

Third, the US does have leverage over China to enforce the agreement because climate change is a global problem that requires all countries around the world to work together. The US can use its power to bring international pressure against China if it fails to follow through with the agreement — much as it has done in forcing compliance from other nations with trade sanctions.

There is another way in which this agreement could be harmful. It might lead countries to believe that China has finally turned against its polluters and it’s time to tackle climate change, while China continues to support fossil fuels just as much as it did before the agreement was reached. The US should not encourage this belief because it would be harmful to the progress being made on climate change.

This agreement could also be beneficial for several reasons.

First, it sends a signal to other countries that they need to make substantial cuts in their emissions if they want to avoid backsliding once China and the US have reduced theirs. The US has already pledged to reduce its emissions by 26-28% by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, while China is pledging to have its emissions peak around 2030. If other countries followed in their footsteps you could see a dramatic decrease in global emissions that would have a real effect on slowing climate change.

Second, this agreement gives both countries political cover when it comes to making decisions about whether they should build new coal plants or continue to support fracking . When the US was considering whether it should allow Keystone XL, for example, it said that the decision would depend in part on what other countries were doing to reduce their emissions. China’s agreement could help make these decisions go more smoothly for both countries.