3 Obstacles Ahead for Surprise U.S.-China Climate Deal

Meeting the targets will require huge economic changes in both the U.S. and China.
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A woman wears a mask as protection against heavy haze and smog in Beijing in October 2014.


A surprise U.S.-China climate deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions, announced early Wednesday, sets ambitious targets that will likely prove difficult to accomplish, especially given the looming Republican takeover of the U.S. Congress.

Representing the world's two biggest-emitting countries, President Barack Obama and China President Xi Jinping agreed to record-setting reductions of heat-trapping emissions that contribute to global warming.

The deal could give momentum to a new global climate agreement, slated to be finalized next year during United Nations-led talks in Paris. Yet actually meeting the reduction targets is another matter. They would require massive economic changes in both the U.S. and China that could be politically or socially unpopular.

Obama pledged to cut U.S. emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, doubling the pace of carbon cuts during the 2020-25 period compared to the previous 15 years. Xi said China would halt the growth in its carbon emissions, which have soared in recent years, by 2030 partly by boosting non-fossil fuels such as solar and wind to 20 percent of total energy production.

The two leaders had been expected to make bold pledges early next year in advance of any Paris agreement, so the sweeping announcement surprised many climate change analysts.

"It's a new day to have the leaders of the U.S. and China stand shoulder-to-shoulder and make significant commitments to curb their country's emissions," said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental research group.

Yet for the deal to have an impact beyond climate negotiations, it will have to overcome at least three major obstacles:

1. Emissions are rising in both countries.

Global carbon dioxide emissions rose 2.3 percent last year, due mostly to a 4.2 percent increase in China, the biggest emitter, and a 5.1 percent jump in India, the third largest one, according to the tracking initiative known as the Global Carbon Project. (See related interactive map: "Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.") They also rose in the United States, the second biggest emitter, after several years of declines.

So the new deal will require a major shift in course for two countries that account for about 40 percent of global emissions.

What's more, China has been driving the growth in the world's carbon emissions in recent years, accounting for more than half of that surge in the past 15 years. It now emits one-fourth of the world's energy-related carbon dioxide, and its per capita emissions exceed those of Europe, though not of the United States, according to the Global Carbon Project.

Because of this dominance, the potential of China's pledge "dwarfs" that of the U.S. and requires dramatic action, wrote Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "For China to peak its emissions by 2030, it would need to depart sharply from the path that most analysts currently expect," he says. "That alone is a big deal."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a New York Times op-ed piece, described the dramatic changes that China will have to make to meet its goal of obtaining one-fifth of its energy from zero-emission sources such as nuclear by 2030.

"China will need to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar, and other renewable generation capacity by 2030—an enormous amount, about the same as all the coal-fired power plants in China today, and nearly as much as the total electricity generation capacity of the United States," Kerry wrote.

Yet Kerry said neither China nor the U.S. alone can solve the problem of rising global emissions. He said Obama's new pledge would put the U.S. on "a path to transform our economy, with emissions reductions on the order of 80 percent by 2050."

Indeed, the pledge is bigger than the 17 percent emissions cut Obama promised five years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark, for the 2005 to 2020 period. The problem: Given its recent increase in emissions, the U.S. is falling off course to meet even that earlier pledge.

2. Obama faces intense political opposition.

Obama's primary plan for reducing U.S. emissions has been his administration's proposed rule, announced in June, to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants 30 percent nationwide by 2030. The Environmental Protection Agency is taking comment on the proposal until December and plans to finalize it next year. (See "Four Key Takeaways From EPA's New Rules for Power Plants.")

Yet Republican victories in the midterm elections this month, which will put the party in control of both the House and Senate in January, could challenge Obama's ability to enact his plan. (See "Four Ways U.S. Election Results Could Intensify U.S. Energy Battles.")

Several prominent Republicans, including the incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, oppose the EPA proposal, saying it could force the closure of many coal-fired power plants and hike consumer utility bills.

"Our economy can't take the president's ideological war on coal that will increase the squeeze on middle-class families and struggling miners," McConnell said in a statement to McClatchy. "Easing the burden already created by EPA regulations will continue to be a priority for me in the new Congress."

Obama has the executive authority, via the Clean Air Act, to issue the rule, but a GOP Congress could vote to bar any funding for its development or enforcement.

Levi said meeting even the lower end of the new U.S. pledge would require slashing power plant coal use about 75 percent by 2025: "Achieving these goals will almost certainly require changes to the implementation of the EPA power plant regulations."

3. Carbon-free alternatives are often costlier.

The new U.S.-China deal calls for the two countries to work together to expand clean energy research and development. It calls for the establishment of a new initiative to store industrial carbon in China and a pilot project to produce fresh water from carbon injected into deep saline aquifers.

While the new research and development could spur carbon-reducing technologies, energy sources that emit no greenhouse gases are often costlier to produce than fossil fuels. Solar and wind capacity has increased dramatically in both the U.S. and China in recent years, but remains a small share of total energy production.

The increase in solar and wind energy has been spurred by government subsidies. China has subsidized the manufacturing of solar panels to such an extent that some U.S. companies have sued it, alleging unfair trade practices. The United States has offered tax benefits to wind and solar producers, but the federal wind production credit lapsed last year.

These subsidies may not be the only factor that will decide whether renewables gain the traction needed to help the U.S. and China meet their new pledges. Also key to whether renewables can catch on: technological advances, which have helped slash the price of solar panels, and falling global oil prices, which have decreased incentives for U.S. oil production.

Follow Wendy Koch on Twitter and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoGreen.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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