US-China: Going in the right direction, but far and fast enough?

The US and Chinese Presidents announced on 11 Nov 2014 that

  • the US is to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025
  • China is to peak CO2 emissions around 2030, with the intention to peak earlier, and to increase the non-fossil fuel share of all energy to around 20% by 2030.

The annoucements were a concerted move by the two largest economies in the world, and so has undoubted political significance. They have potential to create momentum and promote collective action, rather than a tenor of ‘I will if you will’. But what do these announcements add up to, assessed against science and equity?

The question is whether we should pop the champagne corks, hailing this as a game-changing announcement. When assessing the contributions more closely, including the numbers, it does not look at good. Particularly when assessed against the requirements of science and equity. That is a very different metric to assessing this against what is politically feasible. But none of us can negotiate with the climate, so we must ask if these contributions add up to fair relative efforts to address the climate challenge.

On initial analysis, the US numbers seem weaker than they were in 2009; while China’s announcement of a year in emissions would peak (2030, possibly earlier) is both politically a huge move, and withstands some analytical scrutiny (at least my initial take). But neither is adequate for 2°C. That’s bad news for the planet – and our ability as a human species to rise the challenge.

Looking at the US numbers more closely

The US further argues that this will “double the pace of carbon pollution reduction” – based on annual rates from 1.2 % (for 2005-2020) to 2.3-2.8 % for 2020-2025.They also say that this will keep the US “on the right trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide reductions on the order of 80 percent by 2050”

The US contribution is lower than before, not in the range required by science, especially in the near-term target. A long-term reduction to 83% would be worth having, iff the US will commit to multi-year targets.

Sounds good? Well, consider the following:

  • The numbers are lower than President Obama put forward in Copenhagen, and his administration communicated in 2010. The main pledge then was 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 (about 2-4% below 1990 levels). But critically there was a footnote, which is worth quoting verbatim: “The pathway set forth in pending legislation would entail a 30% reduction in 2025 and a 42% reduction in 2030, in line with the goal to reduce emissions 83% by 2050.” Fast forward to Nov 2014, and the numbers 26-28% (still below 2005 levels) by 2020; and 80% by 2050. Indisputably lower numbers.
  • I am of the firm view that long-term goals are crucial, but why reduce for 83% to 80%. The call has been raised for net zero by 2050, so the numbers need to be going in a more ambitious direction, not less
  • The US claims that the new numbers are ambitious. They point to the rate of effort doubling. And that the upper end of the 26-28% range for US is analytically on a straight line trajectory from the 17% below 2005 in 2020 to an 83% reduction by 2050. The question is whether the US will commit to that trajectory – and in a manner that we know the next adminstrations will follow through (see legal force, below).
  • We have known for a long time that what is expected of a country like the US, to have perhaps a 50:50 chance of keeping temperature below 2 °C, would be in the range of 25 – 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80-95% by 2050 (as you get close to 100%, the base year stops mattering as much, but before then, it matters a lot). That means the US long-term aspiration just scrapes in. But 26% below 2005 levels by 2025 is about 14% below 1990 levels – well short, even though it is five years later.
  • What we are seeing, again, is the best that the US can offer – but as I wrote in a previous blog on the US Presidential plan, what best from the US is not good enough for the planet.
  • China’s announcement does seem like the stronger relative effort (see the next section). Politically, that takes away argument in the US that China is not acting, one of two reasons for the unanimous Byrd-Hagel resolution in which the US Senate said it would not sign up to Kyoto, before the event. One can only hope that the will help with the dismal state of climate debate in the USA.

China peaking – what does that mean?

Politically, for a major developing country to announce a peaking year is a huge step. It would, of course, be helpful to understand at what level China expects its emissions to peak. But even knowing when it emissions will peak, and that it may be earlier, is a big step for the world’s second largest economy. One can hope that other developing countries will be “like-minded”.

The Chinese announcements expand on the headline number (2030 or earlier), with total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources to around 20 % by 2030.

China’s ambition on clean power is clearly large – an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030. Will China perhaps lead the world out of fossil fuels?

For lil’ old South Africa, just the 200 GW difference between those two numbers is 5 times our entire electricity grid. that should make South Africa think again.

But the key question goes to the headline number – is 2030 peaking “early”, and early enough? Let’s consider peaking by 2030 in analytical terms. One source is China carbon calculator , in reference case China’s emissions are still steeply climbing in 2030. OK, but that’s not mitigation, so let’s look at some good analysis of that. Cutting-edge research from Chinese colleagues Jiang Kejun and his colleagues at ERI and Renmin University published an article titled “China’s role in attaining the global 2°C target” in a leading English-language journal, Climate Policy . This is analysis that pushes the envelope to what is needed, and ambition – while understanding the context of what is feasible in China’s political economy.

They examined what would be needed for 2 °C, a reference case (BAU), a low carbon scenario (LC), and enhanced low carbon scenario (ELC). The figure below shows the trajectories.


China peak


Several things are clear:

  • GHG emissions peaking by 2030 is a major departure from BAU. Those who might be tempted to claim that China’s announcement is all “easy” should read the article carefully
  • Neither LC nor ELC get to what is needed for 2 °C. For that, as Jiang et al clearly state, emissions would have to peak by 2025. One should note that the announcement by the Chinese government did leave open “earlier” peaking
  • LC and ELC peak around 2030 – so one might say that, according to analysis of ambitious-but-realistic scenarios by Chinese researchers, peaking in 2030 is consistent with (enhanced) low carbon trajectories

So in sum, it seems fair to say that China peaking by 2030 is consistent with enhanced low-carbon scenarios that are ambitious-but-realistic – but also fall short of what is needed for 2°C. It does, however, seems to me a fairer relative effort.

It seems many is having a good look at the numbers. Somewhat different analysis to mine is in an interesting report by Climate Action Tracker, which suggests that the US has an ambitious target (not sure I quite see that) but an implementation gap. And in their view, that China will reach their target and can and will do more. It is important to understand that their least-cost scenarios “do not necessarily reflect fair shares of reductions”; in other words, they are not claiming to have assessed against equity, mostly (only?) against what is required by science.

If others did similarly, would not reach 2 °C

These announcements go in the right direction, as far as numbers on mitigation are concerned. They might help create a more positive dynamic, but only if they are treated as a floor, something to be increased prior to Paris. But with the three major players (including the EU’s 40% below 1990 by 2030) putting in targets they can probably exceed, this makes an agreement in Paris possible – but not one that is truly worthy of the adjective “ambitious”. Something really adequate would need the EU to go to more than 40%; US more than 14% below 1990; China look at the ‘earlier’ peaking – and other developing countries to follow.

Analysis by Chris Hope, running a PAGE09 integrated assessment

model, takes the US and Chinese annoucments, the EU’s pledge to cut emissions by 40% below 1990 by 2030; assumes the rest of the OECD matches the US’s actions of a 28% cut by 2025, and the rest of the developing world matches China’s pledge to stop increasing emissions by 2030.

If others acted in a similar way, the chance of staying below 2 °C in 2100 is 1.1%, and the cost of mean impacts in 2100 estimated at about $19 trillion. The underlying message: These pledges are only the first step on a very long road.

Some more useful analysis has been done by Climate Action Tracker – too long to repeat here, and I dare not summarise. See

What does the ‘G2’ announcement mean for the 2015 Agreement?

Well, again, I’m not sure this is all good news.

As the US and China point out themselves, they jointly account for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions – that is annual emissions, not per capita or cumulatively.

The US uses some careful language, saying that its ‘contribution’ (not a commitment) is achievable “under existing law”. Careful readers will note the Copenhagen/Cancun target referred to pending legislation. In plain language, the US no longer envisages any new laws.

So in what sense will this contribution have “legal force”, something that was at the heart final negotiations that produced the Durban platform. It means the US is not only unable to sign up to internationally legally binding commitment; but it cannot pass any domestic law. So we are asked to trust that executive action will be implemented based on an existing legislation. That is not the certainty that I expect from a “Protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties”; I would expect both the overall agreement to be a legal instrument, and the key commitments – such as these announcements, to have legal character. Legal character of commitments is not an end in itself, but is crucial for confidence that future US administrations will implement what has been announced by the Obama administration. The US will not ‘commit to legislate’ – and of course they’ve regaled us all at length about the reasons why, but seem less interested in other countries’ internal constitutional and legal arrangements. My sense – not good enough.

Do we have certainty that China will do what it says? With a very different political culture to the US, my sense is it is very likely that China will do what is in its plan. Another question might be whether China will sign up for a commitment with legal character? Immediately note that this would be huge shift from the past; but since responsibility for future is equally huge, let’s explore this question. The answer seems less clear to me; perhaps once the commitment to peak by 2030 or earlier, increase renewables, 800- 1000 GW of clean power, and other elements are in the 12th five-year plan, this may not pose an insurmountable hurdle. Or China will not wish to go further than the US – and that is only fair, given that despite the absolute size of the Chinese economy, there are still hundreds of millions of lift out of poverty.

There is little certainty given that the announcements will lead to commitments with legal force. We need certainty that what is announced by leaders today will be carried out by future administrations. In terms of what the planet needs, I hope that the moment when China takes global leadership and forges ahead comes sooner, rather than later.

What about adaptation, finance, technology?

And it’s not all about legal form and character. Nor is the 2015 agreement supposed to be about mitigation only. These announcements are focused on mitigation, and probably a basis for INDCs of two big countries. Both falling short of 2 °C means that even more adaptation will be needed. I could find no mention of adaptation in the joint statement.

And both Lima and Paris will require finance. An initial capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) of at least $ 15bn will be needed in Lima next month, and then a a pathway to $100 billion must be charted by Paris. This blog is not the space to write even longer, but there is technology, reviews, and rules, rules and rules – many elements needed.

Going far fast?

An African proverb says:

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

We need to go far, fast.

1 thought on “US-China: Going in the right direction, but far and fast enough?

  1. Excellent commentary Harald!
    My sense is that whilst big political aligment on this matter critical to the future of humankind (and other species on the planet) is necessary, it is heavily constrained by what national leaders perceive to be doable. This ‘conservative’ response of big politics seems largely based on a static view of human ability to change (= technology and the ability to use it). In that sense, if other key actors (=business and cities) have the conviction and ability (= through finance and human resource capacity) to deploy technology (also novel technology), and emissions drop faster than previously envisaged, then big politics will have more freedom to revise its targets. Maybe this is what is happening more strongly already in the EU – where a ‘whole society compact’ to reduce emissions may be at work. Have they managed to go further and faster than other societies?
    In summary then, my view is that there’s still room for positivism – and, of course, necessity!

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