Obama's climate plan is already working — in China

An international agreement to restrict carbon emissions may be much easier than we think

China Obama
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Evan Vucci))

The best-case scenario for Obama's new regulations on coal-fired power plants, released yesterday, is that other nations will take them as an impetus to fast-track their own efforts to fight climate change. Literally the very next day, that is already happening, and with the world's largest emitter: China.

I have previously argued that the best way to view this rule is in an international context. Yes, this rule is by far the most important climate policy of the Obama presidency, and will achieve significant emissions cuts here in the United States. But by itself, it is not even close to enough to put the United States on a sufficient trajectory to keep overall warming under two degrees Celsius (the international consensus on the maximum allowable warming short of environmental catastrophe).

Furthermore, whatever we do could be immediately swamped by China and India, who could easily blow past world carbon limits by themselves. Therefore, the important thing is what Obama's policy signals to the international community — if we could demonstrate some commitment and good faith, others nations might take action of their own accord.

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I just didn't think it would happen this fast. But just today, China announced an extremely aggressive climate rule capping their total carbon emissions as of 2016:

China, the world's biggest emitter of climate-changing greenhouse gases, will set an absolute cap on its CO2 emissions from 2016, a top government adviser said on Tuesday. The target will be written into China's next five-year plan, which comes into force in 2016, He Jiankun, chairman of China's Advisory Committee on Climate Change, told a conference in Beijing. ...

The move will be the first time China puts absolute limits on its CO2 emissions, which have soared 50 percent since 2005. [Reuters]

[Update: After this story was published, the official who made this announcement walked it back: "What I said today was my personal view. The opinions expressed at the workshop were only meant for academic studies. What I said does not represent the Chinese government or any organization."]

While China isn't explicitly tying its new rule to Obama's, rest assured, this timing is not a coincidence. Clearly, I underestimated how eager other nations are to get some kind of climate policy going. I imagine China had this policy in the can, and was waiting to see if America would get its act together enough to justify Beijing's own policy. (I also suspect a bit of one-upmanship here, something like, "Oh yeah? Well check out this climate policy, you toads!")

Now, China's new rule isn't enough in itself either — especially since we don't even know what the total CO2 cap would be. But given that China is still quite poor, and industrializing at a high speed, any cap at all is very ambitious. More importantly, it's a move toward realizing a fundamental truth: Despite the unfair history of carbon emissions, in which early-industrialized nations emitted far more than their "fair share," the world simply doesn't have enough room for currently developing nations to industrialize as Western nations once did. For civilization to survive, developing nations will have to essentially leapfrog fossil fuels and go straight to renewables. China's announcement hints that the world's largest country is beginning to understand this.

What's more, leaders in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere were also watching Obama's regulations closely, suggesting that other actions may be coming down the pipe (not every government can move as fast as China's).

Obviously, a global climate deal would still an extraordinarily heavy lift — but perhaps not as heavy as most people believe. As Matt Yglesias points out, America ought to be relatively insulated from the worst effects of climate change, while China, India, and Bangladesh are far more vulnerable, but get no say over our climate policy. In that sense, the developing world may be increasingly desperate for some kind of climate treaty. And with the astonishing breakthroughs in wind, solar, electric cars, and the like, a future economy powered mostly without fossil fuels is looking increasingly plausible.

If this highly encouraging development from China is any indication, the world may be finally coming to grips with the reality of climate change. If American activists can swing the domestic politics, a strong international agreement might just be within reach, maybe even during the Lima climate talks scheduled for this December. Let's get to work.

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