Global Environmental Politics

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Sikina Jinnah

Sikina Jinnah: The US and China Strike a Bilateral Climate Deal

This post was written by Sikina Jinnah, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service.  

The US and China Strike a Bilateral Climate Deal

Last week President Obama surprised the world in announcing a new bilateral climate deal with China. Central to the agreement, the US pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, and China agreed to peak its emissions around 2030 and increase its non-fossil fuel share of energy to 20% by 2030. Although these pledges are not nearly enough to avoid the dangerous anthropogenic impacts of climate change, they mark a substantial improvement over the status quo and breathe new life into the ailing United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations as countries prepare to meet in Paris, France in just over a year to hammer out a new climate agreement for the post-2020 period.

The US and China have been at loggerheads for almost a decade within the UNFCCC, stalling negotiations and leading many to lose faith in the international process to effectively address climate change. At the heart of their disagreement is a refusal by both countries to move first. The US Congress has made clear that it will not ratify a treaty that excludes the world largest emitters (read: China and India) from binding emission reduction targets. Underlying this position are, of course, economic concerns. The National Intelligence Council, for example, estimates that China’s rapidly growing economy is expected to outstrip that of the US by 2030, raising concerns about economic competitiveness. In parallel, China has argued that it should not be asked to curb its economic growth – through costly emission reduction – in order to solve a problem that was caused by the US and other industrialized economies. This impasse has led to years of circular discussions and incremental progress (at best) in addressing both emission reduction (i.e. mitigation) and adaptation to climate change impacts within the UNFCCC.

Against this political backdrop the new bilateral climate deal is remarkable. It breaks the decade-long deadlock through substantial emission reduction targets on both sides, including China’s first absolute emission reduction commitment (previous pledges have been intensity based). It creates incentives to spur technological innovation and investment in renewables and puts increased pressure on other emerging economies, who, like China, were also excluded from binding mitigation targets under the Kyoto Protocol, to make similar pledges to reduce their own emissions. Perhaps most importantly, it signals a willingness from both countries to collaborate on climate change into the future and beckons environmental cooperation as a platform for international cooperation on a world stage mired in conflict in so many other areas.

In short, the bilateral agreement breathes new life into the UNFCCC negotiations by signaling to the rest of the world that two of the world’s largest emitters are finally ready to act and have found politically creative means to do so.

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Author: sisgep

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offers a unique, specialized, and world-leading graduate environmental studies education. We have two degree tracks: Global Environmental Policy (GEP), and our dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) option with the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Join us!

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