The U.S. and China agree on five joint initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

In July 2013 the U.S. and China accelerated their bilateral climate cooperation by agreeing on five new action initiatives with the aim to reduce climate gas emissions and air pollution.  Are we finally beginning to see important action from the two biggest greenhouse emitters in the world?

On a U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) meeting in July, the U.S. and China agreed on five action initiatives on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. The five action initiatives were developed by a U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, which identified initiatives where they believed it possible for the U.S. and China to cooperate.

The U.S. and China together account for around 42 % of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. The action initiatives are supposed to address some of the key drivers of climate gas emissions and air pollution in both countries.

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The level of pollutants in Beijing’s air increased by almost 30 per cent in the first three months of 2013. Photo by: Kevin Dooley (CC)

The five action initiatives include:

  • Smart grids
  • Carbon capture, utilization and storage
  • Emission reductions from heavy-duty and other vehicles
  • Collecting and managing greenhouse gas emissions data
  • Energy efficiency in buildings and industry

Read more about the initiatives, and the the full Working Group report here.

The five action initiatives will be implemented from October 2013, and could be seen as an important and big step in the right direction. Some argue that cooperation between the two largest emitters could help unlock a global deal to cut emissions.  However, it is yet to be seen the scale and impact of the climate cooperation. Also interesting; the agreement is not binding.

Power competition between the U.S. and China

The U.S. and China haven’t taken much global responsibility for the climate changes up until now. For example, neither the U.S. nor China has binding emissions limitation targets in today’s international climate regime, the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. hasn’t ratified the agreement, and China has no emission commitments. For the U.S. it is important that all the major world economies have emissions targets simultaneously. Without China and India, the U.S. will not join a climate agreement with binding emission commitments, because it would give a competitive advantage to these countries at the world market. On the other hand, China will not commit to an agreement if the western countries do not keep their old promises of emission cuts and money to the developing countries. They believe that the rich countries have historical responsibility.

It is difficult to reach an international agreement with binding emission cuts as the U.S. and China, the two biggest economies in the world, in many ways are competitors and unsure of each other’s intentions. The U.S. is still the world’s superpower, whilst China’s influence in the world continues to grow. The relationship is therefore at times tense, as the two powers economic- and security interests often collide.

The need for cooperation, but the uncertainty of reaching it

However, both the U.S. and China recognize that they play a significant role in global efforts to address climate change. Both sides agree that by intensify their domestic actions and their bilateral climate cooperation they can make an important contribution to the worldwide effort to confront climate change. Domestically, both countries have adopted laws or regulations addressing climate change. The working group states in the report that “global climate change represents a grave threat to the economic livelihood and security of all nations, but it also represents a significant opportunity for sustainable development that will benefit both current and future generations. We believe that ambitious domestic action by China and the United States is more critical than ever”. (Working Group Report)

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Secretaries Kerry and Lew, Chinese State Councilor Yang, and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Participate in the Joint Session on Energy Security. Photo by: U.S. Department of State (CC)

Taken into account the competitive relationship between the U.S. and China, and that the new five initiatives in the bilateral climate cooperation are not binding, the question is whether the agreement really represent a new chapter in climate change action by the two big powers.

What is your opinion – will the new climate agreement between the U.S. and China have real impact on combating climate change?

Photo by: U.S. Departement of State (CC)