President Barack Obama began today a three-day visit to China for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and a formal state visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Climate change will be high on the agenda during summit talks and the president's discussions with President Xi. What emerges could prove significant for both international climate change negotiations and Obama's domestic environmental policies.
Because of the need for US-China cooperation on climate change, say some observers, it will be important for both countries to offer new commitments on stepping up efforts to address climate change.
"This is no small time. Discussion between the two men holds the fate of the world's climate future," Li Shuo of Greenpeace East Asia said. "This will be the last chance for the top leadership of the world's two biggest economies before they finalize their post-2020 climate targets early next year."
A key line of attack from Republicans on Obama's plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions is their claim that regulations will cost businesses billions of dollars, kill jobs, raise energy bills, and do little to address climate change because the emissions from developing nations — first and foremost China — continue to grow as their economies expand and millions of people move from poverty to energy-intensive, middle-class lifestyles.
The administration seems acutely aware of the need to defend itself from this criticism and has consistently sought to link efforts at cutting emissions at home to winning commitments from China to cut its carbon pollution.
"How our two countries lead — China and the United States — or don't lead on climate and clean energy will make the difference as to whether or not we're able to fully take advantage of this unprecedented economic opportunity," Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday, speaking about US-China relations at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies.
While the emissions from the two countries account for roughly half of all the world's annual carbon dioxide pollution, some observers say China's efforts far surpass that of the United States.
"China is already doing more than the US to fight climate change," Lucia Green-Weiskel, Senior Consultant at the Beijing-based Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation, told VICE News. "Obama acknowledged this himself in his 2009 State of the Union address when he admitted that China, and not the US, has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. But China will never agree to the terms dictated by the US — because essentially the US is just trying to use China as an excuse not to act."
President Obama announced in June of last year his Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Because of Congressional opposition to putting a price on carbon pollution, Obama has issued executive orders, calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to impose restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources.
China's consumption of coal dropped in the first three quarters of 2014, the first time that has occurred in the 21st century.
China, meanwhile, leads the world in clean energy investment, according to a recent survey of renewables, spending $56 billion in 2013, compared to $48 billion in Europe and $36 billion in the US. Government officials have said a national cap-and-trade system might be launched in 2016. Cap-and-trade programs are already underway in seven industrial regions of the country.
"China can pledge deep carbon cuts but it's unlikely that they will actually commit to reducing emissions," Nick Loris, a fellow at the Heritage Institute, told VICE News. "China won't even turn their scrubbers on for particles that we know are harmful to human health, such as sulfur dioxide, because they want to churn out energy and products."
"What should make us think they would commit to reducing nonhazardous, colorless, odorless carbon emissions that have nothing to do with the environmental challenges China is facing," he added.
United Nations climate change negotiators have committed to forging an international treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions late next year, when they convene in Paris for their annual meeting. In an effort to build momentum toward that meeting, nations are required to announce by early next year how much they will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020.
"We want both President Xi Jinping and President Obama to announce strong post-2020 targets," Kyle Ash of Greenpeace USA told VICE News. Ash says the US can achieve a cut of 27 percent under 1990 levels by 2025.
"China's action in recent years on climate has been far more ambitious than the United States," said Ash. "However, China obviously must do much more given their economy remains the number one current climate polluter, and the government should feel they have a mandate from a population which is relatively much more supportive of acting on climate."
China's climate change negotiator has said it plans to announce early next year when its carbon dioxide emissions will peak.
The Heritage Institute's Loris thinks China and other developing nations are unlikely to put the breaks on producing energy from cheap fossil fuels.
"Any international effort to reduce carbon emissions will be extremely costly and very futile," Loris told VICE News. "When the majority of the world's energy needs are met by carbon-emitting fossil fuels, restricting those emissions will be the equivalent of a massive energy tax that ripples throughout the economy. It's going to be extremely difficult to convince major emitting developing countries to jump on board and sacrifice economic gains to curb emissions."
Greenpeace's Ash points to data showing that China's consumption of coal dropped in the first three quarters of 2014, the first time that has occurred in the 21st century.
Framing the debate between the US and China as one of two, independent economies locked in a game of who blinks first, says Green-Weiskel, ignores the forces that are driving China's pollution and allows the US to absolve itself of its full impact on the earth's climate system.
"One of the advantages that the US has in the context of the global climate crisis, is that according to the laws of the global capitalist economy, the US can export its dirtiest, most heavily polluting industries to other countries," she told VICE News.
In other words, cheap consumer goods in the US are often made possible through lax environmental laws in countries like China, implicating consumers at home in the carbon pollution abroad.
"China benefits from this growth. But it also suffers from this growth," says Green-Weiskel. "The people who want to slap China on the wrist for being irresponsible and polluting too much need to acknowledge this broader truth. Otherwise China feels lectured to and China won't come to the negotiating table."
Follow Robert S. Eshelman on Twitter: @RobertSEshelman