Last month, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping – the presidents of the US and China, respectively – signed an agreement announcing their targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. For his part, President Obama agreed to cut US emissions by 26 – 28% of 2005 levels by 2030. In return, China agreed that its emissions would peak in 2030 – the first time the country has committed to a specific date for this to happen – and promised to increase the share of electricity generated by low-carbon sources to 20%, again by 2030.
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Predictably, reactions to the deal were mixed. But cut through all of the political yammering and the significance of the deal lies much less in what actions were agreed than in its symbolism.
Consider this from paragraph four of the agreement: “The US and China hope that, by announcing these targets now, they can inject momentum into the global climate negotiations and inspire other countries to join in coming forward with ambitious actions as soon as possible, preferably by the first quarter of 2015 (my emphasis).”
Now consider the fact that we are all on the road to Paris and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21 – if you’re counting) to be held in the French capital in November and December of next year. Here, it is hoped, the world will reach a “universal climate change agreement” to take us beyond the end of the Kyoto Protocol in 2020.
China and the US do not have a positive history at these meetings. At COP15 in Copenhagen, the two countries helped to scupper the talks; it took another three years of work before an agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol beyond its original end date of 2012 was finalised in Doha (COP18). The so-called Doha Climate Gateway also set 2015 as the deadline for adopting a universal climate agreement.
Which brings us back to Paris: but this time the US and China have already announced their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions post-Kyoto. It is a seismic shift in global climate change diplomacy. Just how important a symbol the agreement is can be seen by the rather gushing response of Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC: “These two crucial countries have today announced important pathways towards a better and more secure future for humankind,” Figueres said in a statement. “This positive momentum opens the door for all major economies – and in particular all other industrialised nations – to bring forward their contributions to the Paris agreement.”
And therein lies the rub. Leave aside skepticism over President Obama’s ability to get any climate change initiative past a Republican-controlled Congress or the fact that the measures announced would – according to one source – only delay the expiration of the carbon budget by five years. The climate establishment are emboldened: the “staring contest” between the US and China is over, as one analyst from Thomson Reuters Point Carbon put it. Now there is a real chance of reaching agreement in Paris and finally putting the ghost of Copenhagen to bed.
Yet despite the green euphoria, it will not be an easy ride. The US-China agreement also held out some support for the coal industry, including commitments by the two countries to strengthen their policy dialogue and practical co-operation on advanced coal technologies. Similarly, the APEC Ministerial Statement – issued following the APEC Summit in Beijing last month – recognised that “fossil fuels will continue to play a significant role in the energy mix of this region”. How the world’s leaders try to balance the twin needs to reduce emissions and generate affordable power is a process the coal industry should be watching very closely indeed in the run up to Paris.