China, the U.S. and climate change: Yes, this is a really, really big deal

The Globe and Mail, Nov. 13 2014

International agreements to cut greenhouse-gas emissions have always been dogged by simple math: If the two countries that produce 40 per cent of the planet’s emissions aren’t on board, the efforts by dozens of relatively tiny emitter nations to cut back will amount to little. You’ve got to have China and the U.S. – the number one and two emitters, respectively – leading the way. Problem: Neither of the two has wanted to reduce emissions without the other, lest it hurt their economic positions.

Problem solved. The surprise U.S.-China joint agreement on climate change announced Wednesday could be a historic moment in what the deal correctly describes as “one of the greatest threats facing humanity.” A lot has to fall into place in the coming years for this to happen, and the deal will be a tough sell in the U.S. But barring a setback, the agreement opens the door to broader international cutbacks, perhaps as early as next year. Smaller countries can no longer say “Why bother?” now that the big two are in the game in a serious way.

Under the agreement, the U.S. has pledged to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels, by 2025. China has agreed to cap emissions by 2030, and to produce 20 per cent of its energy using non-fossil fuels (e.g. nuclear, solar and wind) by the same year. Both countries have also agreed to try to beat these targets.

On the surface, this comes across as a better deal for China than for the U.S. Basically, China gets to keep increasing its emissions until 2030, while the U.S. has to reduce its emissions at a faster rate than it had already agreed to under previous targets. Ever-shortsighted Republicans in Washington have been quick to exploit this angle as they vow to scuttle the agreement.

But that’s not the whole picture. In previous climate deals, China agreed to slow the growth of its emissions, but this is the first time it has agreed that it must eventually cap and then reverse them. That’s as notable as it is exasperating. China had always insisted on its “right” to catch up with Western countries that spent most of the 20th century gumming up the atmosphere in order to grow their economies. Other developing countries have made the same dubious claim, but now that card is finally off the table.

China’s motivation is simple: Its cities are smog-ridden and its people are getting sick. The government has to take steps to reduce a visible threat to public health, and to its own legitimacy. It also wants to be seen as willing to join in the fight against a danger that threatens the entire world.

The deal, in short, is good for China, good for the U.S. and good for the rest of the world. Perfect? No. Significant progress? Yes. It will inject momentum into future climate talks by reducing the skepticism of small countries.

And the agreement stands as a challenge to Canada. The Harper government has been reluctant to get ahead of the U.S. when it comes to regulating carbon output, for fear of harming Canadian industry. But our two largest trading partners have now agreed to take a historic steps on greenhouse gas emissions. Washington and Beijing’s big move on global warming has put the heat on Ottawa.