November 14, 2014

The policy world has been abuzz this week following the announcement of a landmark climate deal between the world’s two largest emitters—the United States and China.

The result of several years of diplomacy and ‘soft’ policy cooperation on numerous climate and energy issues, this week’s deal sees the two superpowers committing to significant emissions reduction goals for the first time.

President Obama has committed the US to reducing emissions by up to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. The US currently has a target (from Copenhagen) of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. For its part, China has agreed to slow the rise of GHGs and cap its emissions by 2030 at the latest. The country has never previously agreed to any limits on emissions growth, and previously only referred to possible emissions intensity reduction goals, not absolute caps.

Of course, it goes without saying that reaching these goals will not be easy in the domestic context. Obama is counting on a majority of the reductions being achieved through the Clean Power Plan (GHG regulations on the country’s coal plants), as well as various EPA and Executive Actions. All are currently mired in political and legal challenges. The recent mid-term elections, resulting in Republican majorities in both House and Senate, have cemented the assumption that action is likely to be even more of an uphill battle. The 2016 Presidential election is also looming large in the US’s climate policy future.

As a major developing economy, China has the challenge of balancing a rapidly expanding middle class and increased economic growth with the need to diversify its energy supply to include cleaner and renewable alternatives. The country also has a strong social and health imperative to address emissions given the smog and air quality concerns prevalent in many urban centres.

From an international perspective, the significance of this agreement should not be understated. As the two largest emitters– collectively accounting for nearly half of world’s emissions—it has long been understood that any international actions necessarily have to involve the US and China. The two countries have now shown, a willingness to work both within and outside of the formal UN process to take climate action. There is a growing recognition that, while the ‘1 country 1 vote’ system of the UN is an important facet of global governance, from a pragmatic climate perspective what is most important is that major emitters (along with other key actors including business and industry) are willing to act.

This week’s announcement delivers a much needed boost of political momentum to the formal process. China and the US are expected to table these commitments at the upcoming UN meeting in Peru, joining a growing number of countries who are bringing forth such goals ahead of the 2015 conference in Paris. It is there where countries intend to formalize a framework for a post-2020 (or ‘post-Kyoto’) international climate agreement. The EU also voted last month to deepen its 2030 reduction target to 40% below 1990 levels.

China has now set an important example for other major emerging economies in showing a willingness to come to the table on capping (and hopefully eventually reducing) emissions. A longstanding fissure in the internal process has been the differentiation of commitments between developed and developing countries. While the issue is far from solved, a major step forward seems to have been taken.

As many commentators have been pointing out, the US-China deal holds potentially significant implications for Canada–both domestically and within the international process. The longstanding position of the Government has been that Canada needs to remain in ‘lockstep’ with the US on emissions reductions and regulations; as evidenced by our identical Copenhagen targets. It is now clear that our southern neighbours are moving faster and further. It remains to be seen if Canada will keep up, and there are both political and economic implications of resting on our laurels as we have already seen.  Internationally, Canada has been seen as a ‘climate pariah’ in recent years with our early exit from Kyoto. As major economies continue to move, we lose not only political capital, but the economic advantage that could come from diversifying our energy mix, exporting low-carbon technologies and the like.

In the words of Bob Dylan, it is clear “the times, they are a changin’”. What remains to be seen is if Canada will take up the climate imperative, along with key partners like China and the US, to change for the better along with them.


By: Jessica Boyle