China’s environmental standing received a bump Friday as the White House confirmed that the world’s biggest polluter will establish a cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
President Barack Obama was quick to seize upon it, putting pressure not only on the GOP-led Congress but also on other countries.
“When the world’s two largest economies, energy consumers and carbon emitters come together like this, then there is no reason for other countries, whether developed or developing, to not to do so as well,” Obama said during a joint press conference Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In his first term, Obama was unsuccessful in prodding Congress to pass a market-based program to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Under such cap-and-trade systems, industries are granted allowances for the emissions they have historically produced. They then have the choice to comply with the “cap” by retrofitting their plants to reduce emissions or they can buy allowances from other companies that could reduce pollution at a lower cost.
Now Obama’s in a position to shame Republicans for being a step behind Chinese leaders, whose inaction the GOP once exploited as reasons for not passing legislation to counter the threat posed by global climate change.
Environmental groups hailed the announcement, even though many questions remain on how China will implement its emissions reduction program.
“It lays to rest the flawed argument that Chinese pollution is an excuse for U.S. inaction,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
“The argument that the U.S. can’t cut carbon emissions while our biggest competitor burns dirty energy forever has also been put to rest,” said the Environmental Defense Fund.
Under the agreement announced Friday, China will launch a national emission trading system in 2017 for power, steel, cement and other heavy industries. The system is expected to be a key tool in China’s commitment, announced last November, to peak its emissions by 2030 or earlier.
In addition, China agreed to commit $3.1 billion to help developing countries combat and adapt to climate change. That’s far more than Obama has agreed to provide the U.N. Green Climate Fund, a commitment that faces opposition from Congress.
For its part in the agreement, the United States has agreed to join China in finalizing fuel efficiency standards for heavy duty vehicles next year and adopt stronger standards for appliances and building energy usage, according to the White House.
Over the last five years, China has launched pilot projects in emissions trading, but Friday’s announcement suggests it will attempt a nationwide program, ambitious in a country with the world’s largest manufacturing capacity.
Yet whether China follows through on true emissions reductions remains to be seen. Since China is rife with corruption and opaque government data, it could be difficult for the government – or outside observers – to verify if China is reducing greenhouse gases at the levels it is reporting.
Even so, the fact that China has signed onto a emissions-reduction scheme has symbolic value for climate crusaders.
“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,” said NRDC’s Suh, referring to the U.N. climate change conference in Paris later this year.
In the United States, only California has established a binding system for reducing greenhouse gases through emissions trading. Economists and environmental scientists, however, say that real worldwide reductions can only be achieved if numerous countries, including the most industrialized, agree to significant carbon taxes or a cap on emissions.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth