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The China-US climate change agreement is a step forward for green power relations

The China-US joint climate change agreement is a full pendulum swing back from the failures of five years ago. It was only in 2009 at the Copenhagen climate change summit that, despite global pressure for action and the highest political attention, an agreement that would have addressed temperature increases and reduced emissions fell flat. China and the United States — among others — accused each other of sinking the agreement. 

Now the two countries have announced unilateral measures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Significantly, China agreed to slow and then stop its emissions by 2030 while the United States agreed to reduce emissions by up to 28% by 2025. Both sides also spoke about jointly pushing negotiations at a climate change conference in Paris next year, and to cooperate on clean energy and environmental protection.

What changed? Five years ago the core reality for China and other developing nations was that the burden of reducing emissions would handicap their economic growth. Since carbon emissions were largely a product of already developed nations they had more to benefit from an agreement than developing, future emitters.

That simplistic reality has disappeared. Now there is new energy for change. In China, citizens are angry. Air quality is so far below World Health Organization standards that a blue sky appears only after it rains, or when the government closes steel mills around Beijing and bans drivers from highways for major summits, like APEC.

Some Chinese netizens, of which there are 632 million, are so frustrated they have named it “APEC blue” — a feeling of false, temporary hope. Locals don’t want to show off Beijing for a few days, they want blue skies to be the new normal. They have global aspirations for themselves and for China.

It’s not just the people who want a cleaner country; China’s leaders too have a vision for national rejuvenation — the “China dream”. Irreversible climate change could throttle China’s rise as a great power, as environmental damage, emissions and temperature increases derail China’s path to modernity. President Xi Jinping told his APEC guests he hoped that “every day we will see a blue sky, green mountains and clear rivers, not just in Beijing, but all across China so that our children will live in an enjoyable environment”.

There is a growing desire for national rejuvenation and an increased consciousness about the effects of China’s rapid development. We are “breathing the same air, sharing the same fate” said one online viral message. If China’s leadership can reduce emissions and clean up the environment, they will gain further support from the emerging middle class. Party legitimacy will be maintained, and that support will be necessary as China overcomes other domestic challenges.

Greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental challenges in China have already been mitigated by solid policy approaches. Local officials are under enormous pressure from the central leadership to reduce emissions. China is moving more quickly towards a cap-and-trade system. Renewable energy is a fast growing industry and traditional heavy industry is being closely regulated and consolidated to deliver more efficiently.

There is also another climate to consider, the regional strategic environment. In the face of ongoing strategic competition in the Asia Pacific, it’s more important than ever for the two most consequential powers, the US and China, to find common ground on global issues. Climate change is one of those issues where shared interests and pragmatic action can build trust.

US-China relations have been defined in different ways. China’s leaders have promoted what they call “a new model of great power relations”. That framework was introduced at the Obama-Xi meeting at Sunnylands, and has at its core the need for mutual respect and win-win cooperation. China hopes that global leaders can by-and-large, put aside differences, recognize the problem, and work pragmatically to solve it. China sees itself as an equal player to the US, and a regionally predominant one. It wants more of a say without causing concern. In this way, acting on climate change offers clear strategic advantage.

That China and the US have decided to address climate change has broader implications for the future of the Asian Pacific So far it’s a positive sign. Deep dialogue has trumped stonewalling and China is showing itself a capable regional player. Last week, leading up to APEC, China and Japan agreed on a four-point agreement to manage tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Today, the world’s largest emitters are tackling global emissions. This type of complementary action will reduce the strategic trust deficit between the US and China.

China’s leaders have taken a pragmatic approach to cap emissions and bring China to the table as a modern, clean nation. In any case, China’s leadership cannot afford to walk away from change on climate change anyway; doing so would diminish the China Dream.


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