The Importance of the U.S.-China Climate Accord

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, smiles after a group of children waved flags and flowers to cheer him during a welcome ce
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, smiles after a group of children waved flags and flowers to cheer him during a welcome ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. When Xi Jinping took the reins of a booming China two years ago, President Barack Obama saw an opportunity to remake America's relationship with the Asian power. But even after Obama's unusually robust efforts to forge personal ties with Xi, the two leaders are meeting in Beijing amid significant tensions, both old and new. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Last week, the United States pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26% from 2005 levels before 2025, and China agreed to stop growing its carbon emissions by 2030. Since we do not have a world government and are unlikely to get one anytime soon, we are dependent on the actions of sovereign nations if we are to mitigate global warming. Setting aspirational goals like this is an important move by these two powerful nations, and is a significant and meaningful act. Of course, no one can guarantee that either China or the U.S. will actually meet specific targets. Such assurances are always suspect since, in the end, powerful nations always retain a measure of control over their own destiny. Self-interest always guides the leaders of China and the U.S. and they have clearly decided that a slow transition away from fossil fuels is in their national interest. It is their sense of shared or mutual self-interest that led to this agreement and provides confidence that it will be implemented.

It appears that the futile quest for some kind of binding international treaty on climate change may finally be coming to an end. Energy is simply too central to national economic life for a nation to agree to reductions in greenhouse gases until the costs of using renewable energy are lower than those incurred through the use of fossil fuels. The negotiations planned for late 2015 in Paris seem to have abandoned the goal of reaching a binding set of global emission reductions. As Coral Davenport reported in the New York Times last week:

Many other major emitters -- including Australia, India and Russia, as well as petrostates like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, whose economies depend on continued markets for fossil fuels -- do not appear likely to offer up similar targets anytime soon. As a result, architects of the Paris agreement are adjusting their expectations. Laurence Tubiana, France's climate change ambassador to the United Nations and a central figure in efforts to forge the Paris deal, said that she does not expect the Paris deal to resemble a traditional top-down United Nations treaty. Instead, she anticipates that it will resemble a collection of targets pledged by individual countries, along with commitments from each government to follow through with domestic action.

Like passing the collection plate at church, the U.N. is seeking voluntary contributions to global emission reduction goals. The hope is that the planet's interest and national self-interest will be sufficiently aligned to result in some meaningful reductions. Negotiations have been replaced by something that looks like a PBS fundraiser. I wonder which celebrities will work the phones to generate pledges.

Despite opposition, there are plenty of reasons to reduce the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. Climate change is only one of those reasons. Many nations, such as Japan, must import all of their fossil fuels. Importing fossil fuels is expensive and can require political and economic risk. Nations that possess fossil fuels sometimes damage ecosystems and water supplies when they extract those fuels from the earth. Finally, in coal-dependent nations like China, burning fossil fuels can create unhealthy levels of air pollution that are impossible to wish away.

China's President Xi Jinping knows that coal-fired power plants are, at best, only a short-term method for meeting his country's enormous and growing energy needs. The air pollution in China's capital is both a public health and political crisis for that nation's government. The fear of climate catastrophe has proven too abstract to stimulate governmental action. The fear of contaminated air, land and water has been far more effective. So too has the desire to be freed from fluctuating and unpredictable energy prices. There is a growing perception that fossil fuels are a dirty, dangerous and unsustainable form of energy.

The move from fossil fuels to renewables is coming; the only question is how quickly we make the transition. Just as we transitioned from animals pulling plows on farms to tractors doing similar work, we will eventually move from fossil fuels to renewables. The climate crisis is one reason to accelerate the transition, but there are many others as well.

If last week taught us anything at all it is that the action in mitigating climate change will be in bi-lateral and small-scale multi-lateral discussions, rather than global negotiations. My own view is that the real action is in the laboratories of American research universities and national laboratories where scientists are trying to apply human ingenuity to the problem of renewable energy development. This is an area where cross-national cooperation could be very useful. China's emerging research universities could work closely with America's well-established labs and together develop breakthroughs in solar cell and battery technologies. Other renewable energy technologies along with carbon capture and storage could also be explored. Scientists are already part of a global community. They tend to ignore national boundaries when exploring a scientific puzzle. A major increase in research funding could accelerate and encourage broader partnerships and sharing.

In the next few months, we can expect the media to focus on the members of Congress who will try to delegitimize the agreement with China, and criticize the president for exceeding his authority. Since these targets are not a formal treaty, there is nothing for the Senate to provide advice and consent on, but that will not stop the attacks. I think at this point President Obama is perceived as being so weak politically that he will be attacked for walking and talking. Presidential popularity is typically cyclical, so his opponents should keep in mind that in politics what goes up comes down -- and what goes down, sometimes comes back up. In America's political structure, the president is both head of state (the king) and head of government (the prime minister). As head of state he represents the nation itself and is above politics. National crises and simple patriotism often restores some measure of popularity to even the most unpopular, incompetent presidents.

In the long run, emissions reduction targets will not be reached in either China or the U.S. if they depress economic growth. While states that make their living off of fossil fuels will suffer short-term declines during the transition to renewable energy, in the long run they will benefit from lower cost, less destructive forms of energy. Economic transitions typically result in both short-term pain along with long-term gain. New York City made the transition from a commercial and small manufacturing town to a showplace of post-industrial appeal and economic dynamism. The West Side docks are now waterfront parks and SoHo's industrial lofts are now luxury co-ops. We no longer pack meat in the Meatpacking District, but sell it in the district's high-end restaurants. But to reach the New York City of 2014 we had to live through the near bankruptcy of the mid-1970s and the truly terrifying crime rate of the 1980s. At the end of the transition we find a safer, more economically-viable city, but the transition was not fun. The war on coal has been going on in the U.S. for a very long time; the war on coal in China will soon begin. The transition will be painful in coal states and provinces, but is inevitable and will contribute to long-term economic growth in both the U.S. and China.

I believe that history will view the climate agreement reached by the two presidents as a major turning point in the transition to a sustainable economy. At perhaps the weakest point in his presidency, Barack Obama demonstrated the institutional clout that his office retains. Obama has always been at his best with his back to the wall, and since he is likely to be in that position for the next two years, we can expect to see a more decisive, muscular presidency than the one we've seen for the past six years. It should be interesting.