Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | November 13, 2014

The China-US Climate Change Announcement (and why I’m still smiling at the end of the day)

Good news from the realm of climate change politics! That’s a strange sentence to write in an issue where being positive is usually a matter of toning down one’s cynicism. But when the two largest absolute emitters of greenhouse gases jointly announce that both will take on new pledges to reduce (US pledges to reduce by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025) or slow (China pledges to have its emissions peak by 2030 and to have 20% of its energy mix come from renewables) greenhouse gas emissions, there is cause for at least cautious celebration—or at least a break from unrelenting disappointment.

Much has already (within hours!) been written (and some really high quality analysis is out already) on the meaning and significance of this morning’s announcement that China and the US have reached an agreement on climate change pledges. The significance of the agreement is the key open question. At one level, the devil (significance) is clearly in the details of this agreement. As  Michael Levi, Joanna Lewis, and others  have pointed out, a huge question on China’s pledge is where, not when. In other words the 2030 peak date (when) is less important than the level at which (where) China peaks. In addition, Levi and Josh Busby, among others, reasonably wonder whether the US targets are politically feasible, especially in the wake of the recent midterm elections.

Looking more broadly at the significance of the agreement for prospects of a global treaty, the initial reaction is that Paris is a big winner from this agreement. The US-China gulf has been a mainstay of stagnation in the UN negotiating process. Ostensibly this agreement and new cooperation between the US and China could help break the deadlock that has impeded multilateral progress for decades. Levi points out that this is new territory, especially China’s shift towards a much more cooperative stance. But the prospects for this new US-China condominium probably doesn’t presage a new legally binding treaty. There are big obstacles in both the US and China for agreeing to have these pledges be binding in a treaty and Robert Falkner astutely notes that the Europeans and some in the Global South will be wary of the US and China striking off on their own (bilaterally) with these pledges. Already, negotiators are noting that they expect the next agreement to “resemble a collection of targets pledged by individual countries, along with commitments from each government to follow through with domestic action.” (Davenport 2014) This the Copenhagen (2009) model of treaty-making, not another Kyoto Protocol with shared and negotiated reduction targets.

So, did good news just turn bad or at least turn back to status quo cynicism about the possibility for progress in climate politics? Why am I still smiling with all of the analysis that’s come out today? For one thing, a good chunk of the anlaysis and commentary that’s coming out is positive even while acknowledging the challenges that are coming ahead. Further, most of the discussion on significance is focused on the national politics of the US and China and the global politics of treaty-making. So I’m also smiling because even if the obstacles to progress that flows from this agreement mentioned above play out, this is still a big advance in acting on climate change. The US is leading (relatively) on climate change. China is agreeing (in principle) to materially slow and reverse it’s emissions growth for the first time. These were not thinkable statements a few years ago.  Further, the focus on nation-states and binding treaties in most discussions and analyses of this new agreement is natural, but not the whole story. Climate change is no longer solely a matter of national and international politics. The global response to climate change and efforts to move towards decarbonization are much more diverse and expansive than that. In that sense, big ambition from the two largest absolute emitters in the possible (probable) absence of legally binding treaty-making is important because it might provide a much-needed shot of momentum for all kinds of initiatives at the local, state, regional, and transnational levels.

Decarbonization is the long-game in the global response to climate change, but it needs short term stimuli and the two most important state actors pledging relatively big action is a welcome tonic. If the US and China move towards their goals (especially if China works to achieve its renewables goal), it will necessarily unleash a wide range of activities well-beyond national law making and regulations—activities that will contribute to normalizing decarbonization and building political coalitions that support further action. So, even with all the realistic and important concerns about the future significance of the US-China announcement, today is a good day in climate politics.





  1. Agreed. The most significant effects of this new agreement will be on the normative foundations of global climate governance.

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