US-China: Climate Change Challenge and Opportunity
Image Credit: DaiLuo

US-China: Climate Change Challenge and Opportunity


With so many contentious bilateral issues between the U.S. and China – the South China Sea and cyber security to name just two – hopes are building for President Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the U.S. this September. The world’s two biggest CO2 emitters could deliver another environmental high note, one that could have crucial significance for climate talks in Paris in December this year.

China and the U.S. surprised the world with their joint statement on climate change last November and with their environment cooperation plan announced in June’s Strategic & Economic Dialogue. With the all-important Paris Conference just around the corner, now could be the perfect time for the world’s two largest economies to draft a long-term carbon mitigation policy a structured plan to wrestle the world’s temperature rises to below two degrees by the middle of this century.

Genuine mutual interests are driving both Beijing and Washington to act. Bilaterally, the two sides are badly in need of some sunshine in their gloomy relationship. Unilaterally, both leaders are in need of an image boost. Obama, who in Alaska on Monday claimed he is “determined to make sure American leadership continues to drive international action [on climate change],” is looking to secure his climate legacy. Meanwhile Xi is looking to demonstrate China’s position as a responsible global power, and will have the perfect stage to do so at his first appearance before the UN end of September.

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Moreover, timing is pertinent. The environment will be on the global agenda as the Pope addresses the U.S. Congress and the UN General Assembly on the importance of climate change. Xi’s visit to the U.S. will also be the final opportunity for the two leaders to meet bilaterally before the Paris Conference at the end of November.

Before Paris, a long term mitigation goal agreed to by China and the U.S. would send a strong signal to the world’s leaders and bring us a large step closer to keeping global temperature rises under 2 degrees, a target that governments agreed to in 2010 with no concrete plan of how to achieve it. Now is the time for the two leaders to shift their focus from exploring domestic actions and to send a message to the UN climate negotiation (UNFCCC) on where the world can go next.

A strong long term goal based on the latest scientific findings would also present a concrete reference to the UN process ahead of Paris. It could even be something to be directly adopted in the forthcoming Paris agreement, as at last December’s UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, when the language of “in light of different national circumstances” was married with “common but differentiated responsibilities,” an expression first agreed between Obama and Xi in November and which put the most contentious issue in China-U.S. climate cooperation, finally, to rest. In addition, Obama and Xi should also consider a joint bilateral 2050 mitigation goal. Such a goal would allow both countries to spell out their respective domestic long term aspiration and at the same time would give the world concrete examples to follow.

From China’s perspective, there is probably no better time to actively engage with the U.S. on this issue. The latest statistics suggest that for the first time this century China’s energy-related CO2 emissions did not grow in 2014. This was primarily driven by a drastic coal consumption decline of 2.9 percent, which also stalled the growth of global emissions.

The trend is deepening this year. Coal consumption continues to decline and China’s energy-related emissions may well have already peaked. This offers China space to commit to a global long term goal. Meanwhile, a recently concluded government study on China’s long term low carbon development up to 2050 might also provide the basis for Xi to engage in this conversation.

A strong long term mitigation goal would display ambitious leadership on global climate change from the world’s two largest economies. With everything in place, Obama and Xi must now step up to the challenge and bring light to their recently darkening relationship.

Li Shuo is Senior Climate & Energy Policy Officer at Greenpeace East Asia.

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