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China Commits to Addressing Climate Change for the First Time

Speaking during his first state visit to Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping committed to a national cap-and-trade program, which will begin in 2017, and he pledged $3.1 billion to help developing countries adapt to a warming planet.

by Darren Ankrom
Sep 25 2015, 10:00pm

US President Barack Obama and President of China Xi Jinping shake hands during a welcome ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, DC, USA, 25 September 2015. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA)

The world's biggest polluter took its most significant steps to date toward fighting climate change on Friday.

Speaking from the White House lawn during his first state visit to Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping committed the country to a national cap-and-trade program for the first time, which will begin in 2017, and he pledged $3.1 billion to help developing countries adapt to a warming planet.

The commitments were part of a host of agreements between China and the United States, the world's top and second largest greenhouse gas emitters, and intended to galvanize global action at the upcoming United Nations climate conference. Some scientists have dubbed the talks, which begin November 30th in Paris, our "last chance" to avoid dangerous levels of climate change

The deal also helped clarify how the two countries intend to meet their goals, outlined last year, for the US to reduce emissions up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025, and for China's emissions to peak by 2030.

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Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the deal "strong medicine."

"China is promising decisive action to cut carbon pollution at its source and to help replace dirty fossil fuels with clean energy, at home and abroad," Suh said. "It lies to rest the flawed argument that Chinese pollution is an excuse for US inaction. And it sends a powerful signal that China will join other countries in the global fight against this worldwide threat, setting the table for an effective international climate agreement later this year in Paris."

Under cap-and-trade, governments set an upper-limit on annual carbon pollution, and then companies buy and sell permits to pollute. The plan, which brings together seven regional programs that have been running in China since 2012, will be the largest carbon trading market in the world, covering not only the power sector but other heavy-emitting industries including steel and cement.

China's other big commitment — to help developing countries finance a low carbon future — is "a paradigm shift," according to Li Shuo, who is East Asia senior climate policy analyst at Greenpeace.

"This is a drastic increase in scale from China's previous financial pledges — $3.1 billion could even surpass the US pledge to the Green Climate Fund, which still faces a significant battle in the US Congress," Shuo said. "With this deal, it's clear China is ready to lead on climate. The old political excuses for inaction in Washington have become irrelevant."

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China also announced a "green dispatch" system for its energy grid, prioritizing lower carbon sources over dirtier fuels. The deal comes less than two months after the Obama administration's own flagship climate change-fighting policy, the EPA's Clean Power Plan for power plants rule, which too seeks to change the economic balance between carbon-intensive fuels and cleaner options.

While there are still gaps in China's climate policy, today's deal marks a strong step in the right direction, according to Jake Schmidt, director of the National Resource Defense Council's International Program

"It's not the full spectrum of what [China] is going to need to do. Things like dealing with coal more seriously is clearly on the table for them," Schmidt told VICE News. "But this builds confidence that what China is promising is not just words, that there's actually some changes domestically that are going to happen."

Also in the deal, covering both countries, are new heavy-duty vehicle efficiency standards and efforts to phase down super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons. The US committed to finalizing new rules reducing methane emissions from landfills and the oil and gas sector in 2016, as well.

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In response to the agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry called climate change "a defining challenge of our time," which "cannot be addressed with the United States and China working together."

"Today's [deal] represents a significant step forward in US-China leadership and cooperation on climate change," Kerry said. "It is imperative that leaders of all nations come together to take on this challenge in a spirit of common purpose to protect the home that we all share." 

But not everybody is on board. A reliable opponent to measures to address climate change, Senator James Inhofe, who is chairman of the US Senate's Environment and Public Works committee, blasted the deal.

"If the president was serious about achieving a substantive climate agreement, he would spend more time working with Congress instead of developing press releases with the Chinese government. These public pledges sound good, but come with serious economic consequences for the United States," Inhofe said. "The Obama administration will use regulatory overreach to claim our nation's commitment, while China's pledge has no guarantee of enforcement. This is a great deal for the Chinese who are slated to continue increasing emissions with the potential of capping them years from now."

Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom

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