A groundbreaking agreement struck by the US and China puts the world’s two worst polluters on a faster track to curbing the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming.
The US, a chief proponent of the prospective treaty, is setting an ambitious new goal to stop pumping as much carbon dioxide into the air. China agreed for the first time to a self-imposed deadline of 2030 for when its emissions will top out.
Yet it wasn’t clear how either the US or China would meet their goals, nor whether China’s growing emissions until 2030 would negate any reductions in the US.
Still, the dual announcements from President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, unveiled in Beijing, came as a shock to environmentalists who had pined for such action but suspected China’s reluctance and Obama’s weakened political standing might interfere. In Washington, Republicans were equally taken aback, accusing Obama of saddling future presidents with an unrealistic burden.
In fact, the deal had been hashed out behind the scenes for months. US officials said Secretary of State John Kerry floated the idea during a visit to China in February, and Obama followed up by writing to Xi in the spring to suggest that the world’s two largest economies join forces.
Obama pressed the issue again during a meeting with China’s vice premier on the sidelines of a UN climate summit in September, and the two countries finally sealed the deal this week — just in time to announce it in grand fashion at the Great Hall of the People as Obama’s trip to China was coming to an end.
“This is a major milestone in the US-China relationship,” Obama said, with Xi at his side. “It shows what’s possible when we work together on an urgent global challenge.”
But Obama’s opponents in Congress balked, dismissing the new US target as “job-destroying red tape” that would squeeze the middle class.
“This unrealistic plan that the president would dump on his successor would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, who is set to become the majority leader early next year.
Obama set a goal to cut US emissions between 26% and 28% by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. Officials have said the US is already on track to meet Obama’s earlier goal to lower emissions 17% by 2020, and that the revised goal meant the US would be cutting pollution roughly twice as fast during a five-year period starting in 2020.
China, whose emissions are growing as it builds new coal plants, set a target for its emissions to peak by about 2030 — earlier if possible — with the idea being that its emissions would then start falling. Although that goal still allows China to keep pumping more carbon dioxide for the next 16 years, it marked an unprecedented step for Beijing, which has been reluctant to be boxed in on climate by the global community.
“This is, in my view, the most important bilateral climate announcement ever,” said David Sandalow, a former top environmental official at the White House and the Energy Department.
World leaders who have been pressing for a global climate treaty heralded the deal, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urging all other nations to follow Obama’s and Xi’s lead by announcing their own emissions targets by early next year.
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