The Faux US-China Climate Deal
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

The Faux US-China Climate Deal

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The big headline coming out of the second summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama is a climate agreement the two sides reached about cutting carbon emissions in the coming decades. News stories have used sweeping language like the “historic climate change agreement” to describe the deal.

This seems to greatly exaggerate the significance of the deal, at least from the perspective of China. In fact, in the agreement Beijing simply reiterates commitments it had previously announced.

According to the White House, the agreement states that “The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%. 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% by 2030.”

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As numerous news accounts have pointed out, this means the U.S. will cut its emissions at a significantly faster rate than it had previously announced. According to the New York Times, under the new deal the U.S. will “double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.”

This is unimpressive compared to the commitments China made, according to the same article. “China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030,” the NYT article stated.

Actually, China does not appear to have committed itself to anything new in the agreement. Indeed, following an Obama speech on U.S. climate policy back in June, China outlined its own future emissions policy. Specifically, He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, told a conference in Beijing that China would set an absolute cap on its CO2 emissions when it released its next five year plan in 2016. He refused, however, to say what that cap would be.

Further tempering expectations, Reuters paraphrased He as saying at the time that “China’s greenhouse gas emissions would only peak in 2030, at around 11 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent.” China’s emissions are currently around 7-9.5 billion tonnes. Reuters also reported that He said to achieve this goal, “The share of non-fossil fuels in China’s energy mix would reach 20 to 25 percent in 2030.”

To be clear, He later tried to walk back his comments in an interview with the South China Morning Post, stating, “This is still a proposal made by Chinese experts after extensive research, [but is] not yet a government decision.” Still, it would be extremely uncharacteristic for a Chinese official to announce specific targets unless something very close to a decision had already been made.

In that sense, the new deal hardly seems less like a landmark agreement and more like China reiterating what it had already announced, while Obama uses Beijing’s commitments as cover to accelerate America’s emissions reductions. To be fair, however, the New York Times article quoted above did report that the deal was “worked out quietly between the United States and China over nine months and included a letter from Mr. Obama to Mr. Xi proposing a joint approach.” Thus, it is possible (though seemingly unlikely) that negotiations with the U.S. is what spurred Beijing to set these targets in the first place, and the agreement was just reached five months in advance.

Still, at the very least, the agreement announced this week provided little new information about China’s climate policy.

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