On November 12th, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama announced that after nine months of secret talks they had reached a bilateral agreement on climate change. The announcement of the landmark agreement came at the end of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) talks, which bring together 21 countries straddling the Pacific Rim. Although the conference led to other diplomatic achievements and highlighted certain tensions between the two superpowers leading the APEC talks, the climate deal was the main focus of major media outlets in both the United States and China after the conference concluded. Part of the importance of this agreement comes from the fact that this is the first time ever that China has made a formal pledge to tackle the issue of climate change.
The agreement itself was the product of nine months of negotiations at the highest levels of both governments. It all began when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for whom the environment has always been a top priority, paid a visit to China in February 2014 during which Chinese officials appeared open to the idea of bilateral talks specifically on climate control. His role proved to be vital in the initiation and pursuit of these talks. Following that visit, Obama even wrote a private letter to Xi in an attempt to show his own commitment to reaching an agreement with China, which has traditionally been resistant to putting its own economy at risk to protect the environment by decreasing its coal dependency. After many months of back and forth between high-ranking American and Chinese officials, the two superpowers were finally able to agree on the terms of the statement. They established ambitious goals: the U.S. pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by between 26% and 28% by 2025, and China announced that 2030 would be the latest possible peak year for its carbon dioxide emissions, and that by that date renewable and nuclear energy would also represent at least 20% of China’s energy supply.
This climate deal has greater implications for China’s role in the world. As the world’s top polluter, accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, China is finally showing a real commitment to the protection of the environment. It is also showing willingness to move away from the rather isolationist stance it has taken in recent years, especially on the issue of climate change, in order to engender meaningful change, even if that means that it has to find alternate and potentially more expensive energy sources to replace the amount of coal that it uses. The change in position is at least in part out of self-interest: with China’s pollution levels reaching record highs in most cities and industrial regions, the general health of the Chinese population is at risk. In January, the Chinese government decreased its censorship of the issue and allowed government news sources to report on the hazards of China’s high pollution levels. In addition, the country’s former health minister discussed the validity of studies conducted by various international and Chinese institutions and stated that pollution levels could be linked to almost half a million deaths every year in China. Because China’s population is key to its economic success, preserving its health clearly became an important priority.
In addition, the fact that the announcement took place on Chinese soil shows that the Chinese government wants to highlight its increasingly cooperative role in the issue of environmental protection. The timing of the announcement was clearly calculated: it was rumored that the U.S. and China might announce a bilateral agreement on climate change during UN climate talks in New York in September, but China was unwilling to do so. One motivation for waiting until November was also to attract attention to the APEC conference. This allowed China to demonstrate APEC’s increased importance as a multilateral organization, one that might rival its Western equivalent, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which China is not a part of. An announcement on home soil is also something the Chinese government could use to display its power before its own population, as it highlights China’s role as a respected international superpower, and detracts attention from relative instability elsewhere in the region, namely in Hong Kong.
Only time will tell whether this agreement becomes a reality: although the agreement does not require congressional ratification to go through on the U.S. side, a Republican Congress may limit President Obama’s actual initiatives to begin reaching the terms of the agreement. Indeed, Republicans will most probably criticize the effect that the deal will have on the American domestic economy, pointing to job loss and a potential slower growth rate as a reason to postpone action. However, both nations hope that the agreement will reenergize the global movement for climate protection. Past conferences on climate change, especially Copenhagen in 2009, have stalled because the two superpowers and world’s largest polluters could not reach an agreement. Although work remains to be done, the fact that China and the United States have now committed to new targets for climate change makes the idea of a global climate agreement more realistic.