Collaboration between dragon and eagle on the road to Paris

A discussion of the US and China's approach to Climate Change prior to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris

Safety, Health and Environment Matters

One of the key factors in enabling agreement to be reached at the Paris COPMOP was the preparatory work well in advance of the COPMOP, carried out by the US and China. This helped to avoid a clash at the COPMOP between these two powers, and also provided a clear signal that two of the largest economies in the world agreed on the need for action on climate change. 

In 2009, the previous attempt by world leaders to tackle global warming and secure a global treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions famously came to nothing. In Copenhagen, delegates were not willing to agree a deal that had been drafted 'from the top down', by only a small number of countries without input or contributions from others. Whilst the summit did recognise a need to limit global temperatures to rising no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the proposed deal was not to be legally binding, causing many to question whether it could really have any significant impact. Nevertheless, perhaps the most significant stumbling block was that the US and China were reluctant to sit at the negotiation table. 

Historically the US and China were in a regulatory stalemate over climate change. Economic and political rivalry meant that even as two of the world's biggest carbon emitters, neither wanted to regulate their emissions, through fear that the other may take advantage to dominate the world's economy. Consequently, in Copenhagen, China was viewed by many political commentators as being openly uncooperative and, despite being a renowned supporter of green issues and regularly talking to the threats of global warming, President Obama arrived with his hands tied by a reluctant Congress, with healthcare issues in the US being his primary focus and distraction. A drastic change in approach by both nations in the past twelve months, towards a cooperative stance on tackling climate change together, was therefore a promising development and was treated by many as an extremely positive indicator going into Paris.

In November last year, during President Obama's visit to Beijing, the US and China announced their plans to begin a collaboration to cut carbon emissions. At that time, China pledged to make sure its CO2 emissions peak by 2030 and decrease its reliance on fossil fuels by imposing a target of sourcing 20% of its primary energy consumption from renewables by 2030. As the world's leading investor in renewable energy, China has taken clear steps forward. In turn, the US committed to cutting its CO2 emissions by 26-28% by 2025, compared to 2005 levels.

Since that first collaboration, both China and the US continued to make progress in the lead up to Paris. During his visit to Alaska in August/September, President Obama told a meeting of foreign ministers from nations with territory in the Arctic that climate change would "define the contours of this century". The President came out in clear support of striking a deal in Paris in December, on the grounds that the climate was changing faster than efforts to combat global warming. 

President Xi Jinping's visit to the White House in September this year was the culmination of several months of discussions between US and Chinese officials and saw China pledge to launch a national 'cap-and-trade system' by 2017, expanding pilot programmes that have been rolled out in seven cities and provinces since 2013. The systems work by firstly capping CO2 emissions and then allowing companies to buy and sell permits that allow them to emit set levels of carbon under the cap. They will cover an extensive range of sectors that produce a significant level of emissions (eg steel and cement industries). This announcement was not aimed at altering the target to peak emissions by 2030 that China set last November, but instead goes some way to demonstrating its ability to meet that goal. 

In addition to the measures to improve its own emissions, China also promised to make a $3.1 billion contribution to finance efforts to combat climate change in poorer countries. This support followed the $3 billion pledge made by the US last year for the international Green Climate Fund. The real significance of China's input is that in the past highly developed economies have held the burden of funding lower emissions and measures for adverse weather in poorer countries. In the words of Li Shuo, Greenpeace East Asia senior climate policy analyst, this represented "a drastic increase from China's previous finance commitments". 

Given the warning from government researchers that China's low lying coastal areas will be hugely at risk if global temperatures melt ice caps and raise sea levels (sea levels along China's coast are rising faster than the world average), as well as the well-documented levels of air pollution in China's major cities, as well as ground contamination and water pollution, there is a clear incentive behind their increased contribution. While the US's total emissions fall considerably below those of China, its emissions per-capita are three times greater. By focusing on reducing US carbon dependency, President Obama has real scope to leave a green legacy by the end of his term. 

The roll-out of renewables and less carbon-intensive energy can only work if there are sustained price and regulatory signals from governments, coupled with innovations in the market. In this sense, having the world's two biggest economies on board gives these technologies genuine scope to develop. In recent years, since China began its heavy investment into the manufacturing of renewable energies, there has been a marked drop in the cost prices of these alternatives to carbon emitting energy sources, making them genuinely viable alternatives. 

However, the real benefit of the US and China's collaboration and increased focus on climate change was that on a global scale it acted as a catalyst for change at Paris. With the Paris accord being drafted from the bottom up, with countries themselves deciding how much they can cut their emissions and change their economies by submitting national climate plans called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the agreements between the two nations posed direct questions to the other larger polluting nations and encouraged many to follow suit. Indeed, according to the UN, INDC submissions now cover around 86% of global emissions, which is four times the amount covered by the Kyoto Protocol. Furthermore, 105 of the INDCs submitted ahead of Paris contained concrete CO2 mitigation targets, in contrast to only 27 nations who had these targets in place ahead of Copenhagen. The credibility of the bottom-up system would have been severely compromised were these two nations not to make a sizable contribution. 

Despite the rhetoric for a low carbon future and the overwhelming success of engaging nations to submit INDCs, the numbers still don't quite add up to what some scientists say is needed to limit the global temperature increase to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and avoid the worst of global warming. As it stands, emissions are set to continue rising, albeit at a lower rate. 

It remains to be seen what effect the process for the revision of INDCs agreed at the COPMOP will have in terms of improving the position. 

It is clear, in the words of Mohammed Adow, Christian Aid, that "Paris will not be the end of the world's efforts to tackle climate change, but it might be the end of the beginning". 

Chinese American Co-operation nevertheless appears to have been a key focus in making a good stand.

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