Paris climate summit 2015

In tackling climate change, the US and China must walk in tandem

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 12:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 2:51pm

Two complementary imperatives drove the most far-reaching proposals yet for cutting the carbon emissions of America's energy sector. The first is to fulfil US pledges ahead of a Paris climate summit in December, where world leaders will try to strike a new deal to combat global warming. The second is US President Barack Obama's goal of constructing his legacy before he leaves office in less than 18 months. He can make the emissions plan law without the approval of the US Congress under powers granted under existing pollution laws. As a result, along with Obamacare - or health care reform - he will leave a bitterly divisive domestic legacy that conservatives and vested interests will fight by any means available to them for years to come.

That said, the plan is significant for its substance, for US credibility in Paris and its likely political impact in next year's presidential election. Respected opinion polls indicate that global warming is gaining momentum as an American public concern - despite the best efforts of the world's most vocal climate sceptic lobby - and that coal-fired power is increasingly seen as unhealthy.

Obama is demanding bigger cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from the US power sector than in an earlier draft of his plan - 32 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 instead of 30 per cent. The biggest loser from the change is the controversial fracking industry, or shale gas. Less polluting natural gas was to play a key transition role from coal to clean, renewable energy. Instead a bigger role is envisaged for wind and solar power, combined with energy efficiency gains.

Obama has set the bar higher despite the fact that renewables, including hydro power, supplied only 13 per cent of US electricity last year. Coal, though its share is falling, still supplied 30 per cent last April.

Both China and the US have now upped commitments under a landmark agreement reached in Beijing last November, sending a powerful message to countries on the sidelines of international negotiations.

Premier Li Keqiang announced in Paris last month that China aimed to cut carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65 per cent by 2030 - 20 per cent more than previously indicated. Momentum is building for a global deal. But it will depend on China and the US working together. In that respect, Obama's proposals are to be welcomed.