The world had been waiting years for the U.S. and China to agree to carbon cuts. And in less than 24 hours, that’s exactly what happened. On Nov. 25, U.S. officials announced carbon reduction targets that could help push through an agreement at the upcoming climate change summit in Copenhagen. The proposal — a roughly 17% cut in CO2 output by 2020 vs. 2005 levels — matches goals already laid out in climate change legislation currently working its way through Congress. That represents approximately a 3% reduction based on 1990 levels, a benchmark used in the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. also plans to cut its CO2 output by 83% by 2050. China, which had previously refused to reduce its carbon output, said on Nov. 26 it would cut CO2 levels per unit of GDP by up to 45% by 2020, compared to 2005 figures. The target, though, remains voluntary.
“The U.S. commitment to specific, mid-term emission cut targets and China’s commitment to specific action on energy efficiency can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement,” said Yvo de Boer, secretary general of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
As the world's two largest polluters, China and the U.S. will play a central role at Copenhagen. And the fact both now have unveiled carbon reduction proposals bodes well for the pending negotiations. They join a growing list of countries, including Brazil and Indonesia, which also have announced CO2 cuts after years of refusing to limit their carbon emissions. The largest country still missing, though, is India, which claims any climate change deal shouldn't impinge on its economic growth.
The U.S. and Chinese announcements certainly will help to build goodwill before policymakers sit down in Copenhagen to hammer out a global agreement. Yet in a sign things may not go to plan, China's chief climate change negotiator Xie Zhenhua called on Western countries to make deeper carbon cuts. "So far we have not seen concrete actions and substantive commitments by the developed countries," he told a press conference on Nov. 26.
Similarly, politicians in North America and Europe want emerging economies to shoulder a greater share of the carbon reductions. As the likes of India and China, so the theory goes, are fast becoming some of the world's biggest polluters, they should agree to substantial CO2 limits.
So how should the U.S. and Chinese proposals be interpreted? For one, the targets represent the initial negotiating positions of both countries. For another, expect negotiators to use the proposed reductions to leverage concessions from the other side. One thing's for sure: the Copenhagen summit may be two weeks away, but negotiations already have started.