China-US pledges spark hope on climate issues | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 12.11.2014
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China-US pledges spark hope on climate issues

A joint announcement by the USA and China on emissions reductions has met with widespread approval. While the pledges are still considered insufficient, they signal growing acceptance of the need for climate action.

Prospects for a new universal climate agreement in 2015 have been given a boost with China and the United States jointly announcing their contributions - months earlier than expected.

The two countries - the world's biggest economies and largest emitters of greenhouse gases - announced on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing new measures to address their greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades.

The United States announced that it would reduce its emissions by a range of between 26 and 28 percent by 2025 from its 2005 levels in order to achieve "economy-wide reductions on the order of 80 per cent by 2050."

China announced it would have its carbon dioxide emissions peak by 2030 - with the intention to try and peak earlier. Measures will include a far greater role for renewable energy and tighter energy efficiency standards.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN climate secretariat UNFCCC, responded positively: "These two crucial countries have today announced important pathways towards a better and more secure future for human-kind."

She said the joint announcement provided "both practical and political momentum towards a new, universal climate agreement in Paris in late 2015."

Coal-fired power station in China

China wants to cut pollution from coal-fired power stations

Not enough for the two-degree target

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks welcomed the top-level commitment from the two key players as a positive follow-up to Europe's recent pledges: "This shows that Europe's ambitious announcement of its target of cutting 40 percent by 2030 is being recognized in the world," said Hendricks.

However, Hendricks stressed that the targets will not be enough to keep global temperature rise below the internationally agreed upper limit of 2 degrees. "That is why this first step must be followed by others in the course of the negotiations," said Hendricks.

This sentiment was echoed by international climate experts. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in a statement: "China is turning the steering wheel of that huge vessel which is international climate policy. This does not mean it is setting a straight course to the target of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees, and this vessel is awfully slow to turn around. But the new course will move it in the right direction at last."

Economic advantages

Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at the same renowned climate think tank, stressed the announcement was of key economic importance, although it was "not enough to do the job."

"The world's two largest economies are sending a strong signal that could shape the expectations of investors and thus give a push to the technological progress we need to steer away from burning fossil fuels," Edenhofer said. "Science shows that effective climate change mitigation takes substantial effort, but is feasible and affordable - in fact, it would reduce annual economic growth by about 0.06 percent globally, according to the latest comprehensive IPCC assessment."

Rainbow over wind turbines

The switch to renewables would limit climate change

Edenhofer says from an economist's perspective, the best way forward is to put a price tag on CO2 internationally.

Room for improvement

NGOs also hailed the announcement as a milestone in international climate politics.

Greenpeace climate chief Martin Kaiser said the US and China were moving in the right direction, although they could and should opt out of burning coal and oil faster. Nevertheless, the two biggest CO2-emitters were "putting their energy supplies on the renewables track."

Christoph Bals, political director of Germanwatch, said the goals were "far more ambitious than anything we have seen from these two countries so far." He said this would have to be the beginning of an "upward spiral," because, so far, the targets are not enough.

"The three biggest emitters - the EU, USA and China - have presented their current visions for the goals they will accept in the Paris agreement. The good news is that an international climate agreement is now very likely," said Bals. The bad news, he added, is that the combined targets so far would "set us on course for a three-degree world. And that would still involve completely unacceptable risks."

Bals stressed that the EU had set its emissions reductions targets for "at least" 40 percent by 2030. China had also left the door open for tighter targets by saying its emissions would peak "around 2030." The US announcement was limited to what the president is able to do without congress, Bals added. But if efforts to create a cross-party climate protection group in the US congress were successful, there could be further improvements there too.

There is general agreement that the announcement will give momentum to the forthcoming UNFCC meeting in Lima, Peru, in a few weeks' time. The conference aims to advance a draft universal climate agreement, with the aim of adopting it at the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris, France, at the end of next year.

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