U.S.-China climate deal is either a good start or a ‘non-binding charade’

Herders in Inner Mongolia have grazed these pasture lands for centuries, and the landscape has had a radical makeover as China has developed wind power.
Herders in Inner Mongolia have grazed these pasture lands for centuries, and the landscape has had a radical makeover as China has developed wind power. Seattle Times/MCT

As environmentalists and the White House celebrated a major agreement with China over combating climate change, Republicans on Capitol Hill immediately began attacking it, and even the president’s allies said more needed to be done.

A key Republican member of the Senate committee overseeing environmental issues said the deal was “hollow” and a “charade” and questioned why it gave the U.S. set targets but allowed the Chinese to continue increasing emissions.

Environmental experts said the deal was historic but added there were big questions about whether China could live up to its end.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the coal state of West Virginia, said he was “encouraged that the Chinese are willing to come to the table” but said plenty of work remained.

“We cannot enter into an agreement that asks little of the Chinese, while simultaneously promising more than we can achieve domestically with our current technology,” he said in a statement.

According to the White House, the plan includes a new target for the U.S. to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China, meanwhile, announced a target to peak its carbon emissions around the year 2030 “with the intention to try to peak early.”

The agreement, announced during President Barack Obama’s visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, also calls on the Chinese to quickly ramp up clean, non-coal sources of power. China will expand total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources to around 20 percent by 2030, the White House said – a mammoth increase in nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission sources.

The Asian nation will be able to peak its carbon pollution before 2030, the White House believes, based on “its broad economic reform program, plans to address air pollution and implementation of President Xi’s call for an energy revolution.”

For Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and the likely new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the deal pairs concrete U.S. action with nebulous Chinese intentions.

“In the president’s climate change deal, the United States will be required to more steeply reduce our carbon emissions while China won’t have to reduce anything,” said Inhofe, a prominent and vocal skeptic of climate change who in the past has called the science behind the issue uncertain and said the president’s actions are akin to “doubling down on global warming policies that have already demonstrated that they do more harm than good.”

On the Chinese agreement, Inhofe in a statement dubbed it “hollow and not believable for China to claim it will shift 20 percent of its energy to non-fossil fuels by 2030.” He called it “a non-binding charade.”

His counterweight on the Senate’s environment committee, however, highlighted the significance of the agreement. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who currently chairs the environment panel, said “there is no longer an excuse for Congress to block action on climate change.”

“The biggest carbon polluter on our planet, China, has agreed to cut back on dangerous emissions, and now we should make sure all countries do their part because this is a threat to the people that we all represent,” she said.

Environmental groups and the president’s supporters echoed those comments, emphasizing the historic nature of an agreement that pushed China to make pledges it until now had resisted.

The U.S. and China are responsible for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and major scientific panels have repeatedly and consistently said nations around the world need to work in concert to mitigate damage from climate change.

Some of the president’s allies on the issue applauded the action but said it still wasn’t enough.

This announcement “is welcome and should increase the chances of a strong climate treaty next year,” said Kyle Ash, a legislative expert for the environmental group Greenpeace. Even so, the president’s “2025 emissions reduction targets are not strong enough,” he said.

Added Li Shuo of Greenpeace East Asia: “Both sides have yet to reach the goal of a truly game-changing climate relationship. There is a clear expectation of more ambition from these two economies whose emissions trajectories define the global response to climate change. Today’s announcements should only be the floor and not the ceiling of enhanced actions.”

The fact that the U.S. and China are on far different paths to reduce carbon pollution – the U.S. is already working to reduce it, while China plans to peak about 15 years from now – is a reality of the nations’ differing economies.

China is still largely poor, but its economy and energy use is still growing rapidly. At the same time, China is combating severe air pollution, and so switching from relatively cheap coal-fired power to potentially more expensive forms of clean energy could help it tackle that issue while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions, said Brian Murray, director for economic analysis at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

“Just the fact that they agreed to cap their emissions in the future is a significant development,” he said. And while the U.S.-China deal is a big step forward, more needs to be done to tackle the global issues of climate change, he said.

“As important as these two countries are, they can’t get the job done working alone,” Murray said. “But without them, the world can’t get the job done.”

Despite the Republicans’ dismissal of the agreement, it’s not clear what they can do about it.

Inhofe in his statement said, “I will do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on” unchecked regulations.

In addition, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the agreement and its new emission-reductions targets amounted to an “unrealistic plan that the president would dump on his successor,” and that easing the burden of federal “regulations will continue to be a priority for me in the new Congress.”

In the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the agreement was “yet another sign that the president intends to double down on his job-crushing policies no matter how devastating the impact for America’s heartland and the country as a whole.” Boehner also plans to make reining in federal environmental regulations a priority in the new Congress.

But while Republicans will certainly saber-rattle about the deal, ultimately it would be difficult for them to derail it even if they wanted to – at least during Obama’s term. The White House says it can accomplish the agreement with regulations, not legislation; attempts by Republicans in Congress to scuttle it would face an uphill battle.

Republicans already control the House and will control the Senate come January. They could attempt to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from finalizing or spending any money implementing the president’s climate-change rules. But those attempts would need to withstand a presidential veto, and as long as the White House is willing to expend some political capital to keep Democrats in line it would be able to knock down the Republican efforts, Greenpeace’s Ash said in an interview.

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