November 11th 2014 will be seen as a turning point in contemporary climate diplomacy. The United States and China jointly announced a landmark agreement after months of quiet negotiations. The timing of the joint announcement meticulously calculated to spur momentum three weeks prior to the COP 20 global climate negotiations in Lima, Peru with the goal “to overcome traditional divisions so we [member states] can conclude a strong global climate agreement in 2015” according to secretary of state of the United States John Kerry in yesterday’s New York Times op-ed.
Traditionally both China and the United States have been reluctant to concede to pressures regarding greenhouse gas emissions. As of 2012 both nations respectively produce 29% and 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Accounting for roughly 40% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, any potential international accord to mitigate anthropogenic climate change would require the participation of both nations. As the world’s largest economies, consumers of energy and greenhouse gas emitters; the joint climate deal between China and the United States is a turning point in the quest for a low carbon global economy.
President Obama pledged that the United States would reduce its carbon emissions by 26-28 percent less below 2005 levels by 2025. The announcement incurs a doubling of pace in targeted reductions from that of 2005 to 2020.
President Xi Jinping pledged that China would reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 or sooner, requiring a domestic energy revolution that would have clean energy sources account for 20% of China’s total energy production by 2030.
Importantly, both pledges are feasible with available technology and under current economic forecasts. Coupled with the European Union’s binding agreement to cut 40% of greenhouse gas emission by 2030; dominant regional emitters are signalling more aggressive assertions to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. The resulting tide product of these normative quakes aims to culminate at COP 21 in Paris with a sweeping international climate protocol.
The China-US climate deal reflects how traditional bilateral diplomacy remains effective in face of a stagnated United Nations multilateral process. The deal diplomatically shifts the burden of inaction to the United Nations, which has been traditionally attributed to China and the United States. A decade of stagnated multilateral climate negations has essentially been unlocked by the deal between both superpowers.
Considering the recent votes for a Republican dominated congress in the United States, President Obama’s foreign policy faces stark opposition domestically. The joint deal places China as the main contender to the United States for global leadership – another mishap like the non-ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 will be a fatal blow to the international legitimacy of United States leadership.
More than just climate change is at play here, it is leadership in the 21st Century. The joint deal was announced under the auspice of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, where both superpowers fiercely negotiated to impose competing free trade blocs in Asia: the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the US and the Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific by China. Historically, China has predominantly had an isolationist foreign policy whereas the last time the United States had a similar foreign policy it led to the outbreak of massive grievances in Europe that spurred the Second World War. China has reached a point of influx due to globalization were being isolationist is no longer an option, and must now play and attempt to win at the game the United States has been leading for half a century.
David Prieto is a Columbia University Master of Science in Sustainability Management 2015 Candidate and current CUCSD COP 20 Delegation Member.