Obama's Climate Deal in Beijing Makes a Global Agreement in Paris Likelier

With UN climate talks starting in Lima, the U.S.-China deal adds a new element to the mix: Trust
Photograph by Andy Wong/AP Photo

When Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping announced a pact on Nov. 11 to control their nations’ pollution, they answered long-standing calls from other countries for leadership in global warming diplomacy. Obama pledged that the U.S. will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to at least 26 percent below its 2005 levels by 2025. China said it expects its emissions to peak by 2030, and it will increase the share of power produced from noncarbon sources such as nuclear and solar to 20 percent. Critics were quick to call their actions insufficient or superficial, but the move signaled each nation’s commitment to steps they’ve already taken on their own—and trust that each will continue to make progress.

Both leaders had more than their own emissions in mind. On Dec. 1, diplomats from all over the planet will gather in Lima, Peru, to discuss a comprehensive United Nations greenhouse gas reduction pact expected to be reached at a summit in Paris at the end of 2015. The negotiators will consider everything from minor technicalities to the biggest questions: Is there an outer acceptable limit for overall greenhouse gas pollution? Who will determine whether countries are sticking to their emissions-reduction promises, and how will the ones that miss their targets be punished? How much financial support will developing countries need to make the switch to clean energy sources?

The negotiators in Lima will also set out a framework encouraging nations to declare by March 2015 the emissions cuts they intend to achieve at home through new carbon caps or investment in renewable energy. That transparency, the thinking goes, will help push everyone to reach the goal agreed to in a 2011 round of talks in Durban, South Africa: a clear commitment to limit global warming to no more than 2C, or 3.6F, above the average global temperatures measured in the period from 1861 to 1880.

By getting out ahead of the talks—and the March 2015 deadline for submitting national climate plans—Obama and Xi have challenged their peers. “There’s a best practice that’s just been set,” says Jennifer Morgan, who heads the climate program at the nonprofit World Resources Institute. Now that Washington and Beijing have acted, it puts pressure on other leaders to follow suit. “It calls the bluff of anybody who was trying to hide behind the U.S. and China.”

Developing nations want richer ones to fix the problems that industrialization created. Developed nations favor asking all countries to do their share, whether by cutting emissions, maintaining forested land, or putting in place other policies for neutralizing the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

The last major round of UN climate talks culminated in a December 2009 meeting in Copenhagen. That gathering ended with Obama “barging uninvited into a closed meeting with the Premier of China,” as Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, recounted in her recent memoir, Hard Choices. Sitting with the premier were the leaders of Brazil, India, and South Africa. With Obama, the assembled leaders hammered out a resolution that recognized the scale of the climate challenge, laid out broad approaches to addressing it, and set a tentative 2015 deadline for arriving at an “assessment” of what steps to take next. Two years later, when climate diplomats met again in Durban, they cemented that with calls for a formal agreement by 2015 that would go into effect by 2020.

The UN powwows have tended to breed suspicion and cliquishness, which leads to posturing rather than great leaps of political will. By standing together, Obama and Xi may have injected the ingredient that’s been missing from the UN climate process: trust. Diplomats and the public need to have faith that “the things they’re saying they’re going to do, they’re actually going to go do,” says David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego. “If we come out of Paris having decisively felt that we’ve turned the corner, that’s a really big deal. The most important thing about turning the corner is credibility.”

It’s taken a quarter-century of negotiation to get here. The world doesn’t have another 25 years to debate what to do on climate change. Temperatures have risen about 0.13C on average every decade for the last half-century. If the targets Obama and Xi agreed to in Beijing are reached on time, the new U.S.-China agreement might result in a decrease in global warming of 0.19C by 2100, according to Climate Interactive, a research organization that models the effects of policy changes on warming. Climate Interactive also ran another, more optimistic model. What if all the other nations replicated the U.S. and Chinese positions? That could avert 0.81C of warming, or about as much as the globe has already heated up on average since before the Industrial Revolution—but just a quarter of what’s still expected to come before the 21st century ends.


    The bottom line: The emissions deal between the U.S. and China improves the chances of UN negotiators striking a deal in Paris next year.

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