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Obama and China Cut a Deal That Just Might Save the World

At the very least, it's a beacon of hope.

by Brian Merchant
Nov 12 2014, 5:50am

Image: Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

This is the surprise climate change announcement of the year, by a mile: the Obama administration has finally reached a deal with China to slash greenhouse gas emissions in a decidedly serious, potentially planet-unfucking way. Caveats abound, of course, but this announcement should be taken very, very seriously.

As a result of the deal, which negotiators have reportedly hashed out over a nine-month period, in secret, the US has promised to double the rate at which it's cutting carbon pollution—slashing emissions over a quarter from 2005 levels by 2025. Meanwhile, China has pledged to ensure its greenhouse gas output peaks by 2030.

The two nations are by far the world's largest contributors to global warming—combined, they account for a jaw-slackening 40 percent of the world's emissions. And until now, the two nations have not seen eye to eye on fighting climate change. In fact, it's closer to the opposite: they've been outright hostile.

Long before a US-China showdown nuked our last shot at a meaningful international climate treaty in Copenhagen back in 2009, the story was the same: The US would say it couldn't commit to reducing emissions until China did, seeing as how the economic giant was the world leader in pumping out CO2 pollution. China would then argue the US was the largest historic producer, and responsible for much more of the pollution—and China was still developing, anyway, and should be allowed to do so the way the US and Europe did—with loads of coal, oil, and gas. So it wouldn't cut carbon without the US making the first move.

Neither were wrong, so nothing happened. Ever. Talks went round and round the same tired points. Getting China and the US to agree on a path towards meaningful emissions reduction was the white whale of international climate negotiations.

Now, out of nowhere, seemingly, we have this major breakthrough. And don't let any of the sure-to-be-expected naysaying get you down—this is big. Sure, it's still not quite enough to get CO2 levels down to where scientists say they need to be, and the pledges will be plagued with uncertainty. And alone, this agreement alone won't halt climate change. But it does three important things to open the door to a concerted global effort that might.

1) It commits China to on-paper cuts. Provided the US starts killing carbon, this is the first time China has officially agreed to wind down its polluting behemoth.

2) It seriously puts the US on a path to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050, as Secretary of State John Kerry underlines in an op-ed published in the New York Times. That's actually in the ballpark climate scientists have been pushing governments towards.

3) Perhaps most importantly, it opens the way for a serious global treaty next year, at the much-hyped Paris climate talks. With an agreement between China and US inked, more nations will feel comfortable climbing aboard. Real progress stands to be made.

"This should inject a jolt of momentum in the lead up to a global climate agreement in Paris," Andrew Steer, the CEO of World Resources Institute, said in a statement.

Yes, it should. If any geopolitical development in the last five years gives us a legitimate shot at beating climate change, this is it.

Hurdles remain, of course. Republicans, emboldened by their sweep of Congress, have pledged to fight Obama's climate policies. This is a big one. But it's worth noting that public opinion is turning against them on the issue—most Americans want government to tackle climate change, and the wave of denialism that once dominated the GOP has contracted to the point where candidates could no longer safely deny climate change in public without suffering a backlash.

Furthermore, the cuts won't be made through laws, but rather executive action, so Republicans won't likely be able to stymie the cuts unless they take the White House.

China, meanwhile, will be difficult to hold accountable, and is notorious for keeping its pollution monitoring close to its chest. But it has its own imperative in reducing CO2 emissions—cleaning up its skies. If it can be a global leader in fighting climate change while placating the growing hordes of pollution protesters at home, the time's never been better.

Beyond that, it's simply unprecedented. It's fraught with symbolism. The two biggest polluters, who have never agreed on much of anything about climate change at all, are issuing a deal that seriously reflects the scope and depth of the problem. The agreement will have a profound effect on the international community, and it's already sending cheers through the climate circles around the world. The two immobile pillars propping the up the bulk of the world's fossil fuel infrastructure finally feel like they've budged.

The challenges in meeting the targets put forward—and pushing them further—will of course be myriad. But in the face of an unfolding planetary disaster that can seem immune to government action, this deal is, at the very least, a much-needed beacon of hope.