China-US deal first hesitant step in battle against climate change

The agreement will see the two nations working together to reduce their combined contribution to almost 40 per cent of global greenhouse gases

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 January, 2015, 7:36am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 11:15am

The recent agreement between China and the United States on action to combat global warming has changed the face of global climate change politics.

The bilateral deal announced on the margins of the Beijing Apec summit in November last year set the tone for greater progress than might have been expected at last month's inter-governmental meeting in Lima, Peru, aimed at forging a new international agreement on curbing man-made climate change.

The Lima meeting was always going to be a crucial stepping stone towards a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2020. Governments have set themselves a deadline of December this year to complete the new agreement.

The Lima gathering drafted a complete negotiating text for the new agreement. Two major improvements in the current approach are that it commits all countries to action and not just the advanced economies. Also, it requires governments to state their own intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) rather than tying them to a less workable top-down standardised formula.

The Sino-American contribution to progress was to be seen to work together and to pre-announce their INDCs. China's commitment was to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to rely on a minimum of 20 per cent non-fossil fuel power generation by the same date. The US promises to reduce carbon emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025.

Many commentators doubt that these commitments are sufficient to keep temperature rises below the benchmark of 2 degrees Celsius in excess of pre-industrial levels. Nevertheless, they set the bar higher than it has been and provide an example for others.

Another plus is that China and the US between them account for almost 40 per cent of global greenhouse gases. If the European Union's undertakings are added in, commitments already made cover well over half of carbon emissions, compared to less than 20 per cent under Kyoto.

Not surprisingly in an area so fraught with conflicting interests, perceived sacrifices and competing views of reality when it comes to climate change control, a lot remains to be done.

Recent analysis argues that climate change has wreaked escalating environmental destruction over the past four decades. Disasters - defined as floods, storms, droughts, extreme temperatures and wildfires - have risen on a steady trajectory from 743 in the 1970s to 3,496 in the first decade of the 21st century.

Some would question whether the observed trend is entirely anthropogenic and also the assumed link between these events and rising average global temperatures.

When it comes to crafting an international agreement, the greatest sources of contention turn on equity considerations - who has most responsibility for the problem and who should pay to fix it? But behind these core issues lurk many points on which disagreement persists.

Some have questioned whether self-determined emission targets will deliver enough action or foster free-riding. The optimists believe that peer pressure and the wary watch of civil society will curb such behaviour.

Other challenges relate to the relative emphasis in funding between reducing emissions and adapting to higher temperatures. Or on where the funding will come from to help poorer economies and whether it will be adequate. Will enough be done to develop essential technologies? How will the realisation of commitments be verified?

A key question is whether China and the US will continue with what they have started.

In a speech in Lima, US Secretary of State John Kerry said climate change ranked with terrorism, nuclear proliferation and epidemics as a threat to global security. Yet according to a recent survey by Pew, only 25 per cent of Republicans consider climate change a threat to the US.

China may find it easier to act decisively, not least because of health-threatening pollution levels prevalent in many cities.

If Sino-American collaboration breaks down, or resolve weakens, it will be increasingly difficult to believe that governments will have the resolve to overcome a complex collective action problem.

Patrick Low is a vice-president of research at Fung Global Institute