Posted on November 14, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday

President Obama and his Chinese counterpart President Xi took a bold step to announce a joint agreement on climate change this week that would cut carbon emissions and reduce dependence on dirty fuel. The agreement signals an acknowledgment that the United States and China, two of the world’s largest economies and also the world’s largest emitters, need to find common cause on issues like national caps on emissions and alternative sources of energy. Their leadership is critical to the success of the possible global climate treaty to be negotiated in Paris in 2015 otherwise the failure of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol will continue to overshadow all global discussions related to mitigating climate change.

The agreement will require the United States to curb emissions by 27 percent below 2005 levels by a target date of 2025. China has predicted that it will “peak” emissions around 2030 and then decrease the country’s carbon pollution. It also committed to using 20 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources. China until now has relied heavily on fossil fuels; 67% of its energy comes from coal. The new agreement will require China to invest heavily in renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectricity.

Some analysts feel China’s new targets do not go far enough, and might even be considered business as usual. Given technological advancements and the nature of Chinese manufacturing, the country’s peaking and leveling of emissions was bound to happen anyway. The targets may not help to prevent the gradual rise of atmospheric temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, the point at which irreversible warming and severe weather patterns is predicted as shown in a recent study, the National Climate Assessment.

The domestic challenge for President Obama is to get the current Republican-led Congress to agree to his climate action plan that includes limits to carbon emissions for coal-fired power plants as well as guidelines to limit pollution for new power plants with a goal to cut emissions by 40 percent. Earlier this summer, President Obama used his executive authority to issue new regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency that requires states to set their own targets in cutting emissions. However, powerful lobby groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by coal and oil companies, are fighting the new Environmental Protection Agency Regulations to cut greenhouse gases through lawsuits against greater regulations. Republicans have also charged that the new US-China climate agreement will lead to a loss of coal-related jobs and create hurdles for American companies to do business in the United States under more stringent curbs in emissions.

At the global level, President Obama has to manage the pledges made by rich countries to Green Climate Fund and the impasse on discussions on “loss and damage,” translating to which nations are liable, and who needs to foot the bill for a 2009 commitment made in Copenhagen to provide up to $100 billion in aid by 2020 for environmental disasters. Questions also remain on technology transfers from the global North to South in order for developing countries to access and benefit from heavy investments in research and technical knowledge to which wealthy countries are privileged.

There are no easy answers to address the grave impact of climate change. Transparent and enforceable commitments to cut carbon and find alternative sources of energy is needed without necessarily leading to the loss of jobs and livelihoods, the specter that is being raised by climate naysayers. A vision for change requires strong, visionary leadership from the most powerful countries of the world. It’s time for Congress to act now and help to drive a successful global climate change treaty next year.