Brad Sinkaus

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

In my last blog post, I wrote that the key to generating long-term action on climate change is engagement, both at home and abroad. President Obama’s visit to China this week demonstrated the power of such engagement, with both countries reaching an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement was nine months in the making and marks a significant turnaround for two nations that historically have not agreed on how to address climate change.

With the U.S. and China emitting a combined 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, dialogue between the two countries was a pivotal step in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions.  Jacques deLisle, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for East Asian Studies, recently remarked that if the two largest world economies and carbon emitters are not in agreement on this issue, “the rest of the world is not going to be terribly interested in doing much.”

Chinese Leader Xi Jinping agreed to cap China’s emissions by 2030, while increasing the country’s share of non-fossil fuels such as solar and wind power to 20 percent of total energy output, putting a ceiling on his country’s carbon emissions for the first time In turn, President Obama announced a cut of 26-28 percent of U.S. emissions below 2005 levels by 2025, building on a previous commitment announced in 2009 of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Many agree these are ambitious goals while others believe they are not ambitious enough; they are nevertheless an important first step in the journey to reducing carbon emissions and a global dependence on fossil fuels.

While the U.S.-China agreement establishes long-term goals, the potential exists for short-term achievements, such as:

Global Climate Agreement: Successful dialogue between the two countries could boost momentum for a new global climate agreement, as talks are to resume in Lima in a few weeks with the goal of adopting an agreement at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of the Parties in 2015.  

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres recently stated, “This joint announcement provides both practical and political momentum towards a new, universal climate agreement in Paris in late 2015 that is meaningful, forward-looking and recognizes that combating climate change is not a five or ten year plan but is a long-term commitment to keep a global temperature rise under 2 degrees throughout this century.”

More Action at Home: Critics of the Obama administration’s efforts to confront climate change consistently argued that any efforts to confront climate change were futile without the participation of China. The U.S.-China agreement demonstrates a unified effort on confronting climate change, sending a clear signal to those who doubt the effectiveness of such efforts. Due to the political divisiveness of the issue, the agreement with China also builds momentum at home as the administration  prepares for what Politico deems the “climate onslaught” of policies to be implemented in the coming months to combat climate change.

Most importantly, the bilateral agreement demonstrates the pivotal role engagement plays in bringing nations together to confront cross-border challenges, specifically one that threatens the livelihood, economy, and environment of the entire international community.  As Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in his op-ed on the agreement, “We need to solve this problem together because neither one of us can solve it alone.”