U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping trumped naysayers with Wednesday’s landmark agreement to jointly combat climate change. The setting was the meetings in Beijing this week of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a forum of 21 Pacific Rim countries. For the first time ever, China agreed to stop emissions from growing by 2030, while the U.S. agreed to revised targets to reduce carbon emissions. The agreement could pave the way for a global accord on climate change next year. However, according to experts, the two countries must sort out differences for the rest of the world to take them seriously, even as China confronts pollution concerns from its own citizens.

On its part, the U.S. has agreed to accelerate efforts to reduce carbon emissions. If all goes well, by 2025 it would cut its carbon emissions levels of 2005 by between 26% and 28%. “[That] target is both ambitious and feasible,” wrote U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a New York Times op-ed on Wednesday. China has committed to ensure that by 2030, clean energy like solar and wind power would account for a fifth of its total energy production. Unlike with China, Obama still has to sell the agreement to Congress back home, where Republicans wrested a majority in the November 4 midterm elections.

The real question is whether the U.S. and China, who are the two biggest emitters and the two biggest economies, can get together and lead on this,” said Jacques deLisle, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for East Asian Studies and professor of law and political science. “The political will is not there right now,” said Barry Lefer, University of Houston professor of atmospheric science and atmospheric chemistry. “Unfortunately, we’re going to probably end up doing nothing. The current Congress is not interested in climate change.”

The two experts discussed the long-term challenges facing both countries in the climate debate on Monday, prior to the announcement of the agreement, on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

The U.S. and China had been quietly working on the agreement for more than nine months, according to the New York Times. However, efforts to find common ground on climate change go back further. “We’ve been working on pulling China in the direction of greater cooperation in terms of emissions and climate change,” said deLisle. Since 2009, the two countries have worked together on clean energy research, technology transfers “and a lot of talk about how to harmonize progress so that both sides can move forward pretty much independently,” he added. 

“The real question is whether the U.S. and China, who are the two biggest emitters and the two biggest economies, can get together and lead on this.”–Jacques deLisle

Ahead of the APEC meeting, the climate change issue gained importance as the United Nations released a major report earlier this month that squarely blames human activity for global warming. It warns that “if left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” 

‘Human Influence’

Lefer found the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change significant in that it was “harsher and more direct” than earlier studies on the subject, and highlighted a “clear and growing” human influence on the climate system. According to a U.N. press release, “the atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, sea level has risen and the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased to a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.”

In that dim scenario, China represents “the single biggest issue,” according to deLisle. “[China] is the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases; it has passed the U.S. specifically in carbon dioxide [emissions].” Even as the two countries now share a common platform on climate change, they have their task cut out in carrying it through to enlist the rest of the world. As the two biggest culprits in emissions, if the U.S. and China cannot provide the required leadership to combat climate change, “the rest of the world is not going to be terribly interested in doing much,” said deLisle. He added that Europe has “done a lot” in this regard, but that its impact is limited.

China does not face peer pressure from within the BRIC community (Brazil, Russia, India and China) either, deLisle noted. “Russia is in denial and an exporter of fossil fuels. India is behind China on the growth curve, so [it asks] why it should start restricting [emissions].” Brazil’s positive steps on emissions control have limited impact, he added.

‘A Bite of That Apple’

Wednesday’s agreement may not necessarily mean that China will abandon its long-held contentions on its responsibility in tackling climate change.Although China has been working to curb greenhouse gas emissions, it has thus far steadfastly rejected the developed world’s interpretations of its responsibility and now faces pollution concerns at home, too, said Lefer. 

“China has for a long time said that much of the pollution that occurs in China, including greenhouse gases, is for manufacturing of goods that are exported to the rest of the world, which should in some sense be billed to us [in the developed world],” said deLisle. China’s argument is that the rich countries grew by polluting, and “it should be given a bite of that apple,” he added.

China does have programs to cut its emissions, with plans to do some carbon trading, reduce the energy intensiveness of its economy and increase the use of renewable energy, but those face numerous obstacles, said deLisle. “The country is particularly vulnerable to climate change, given the storms in Southeast China and the droughts in the North and so on,” he added. At the same time, it is finding that the pollutants contributing to global warming are also “literally choking people” in Chinese cities. “Even people below the middle class are getting quite angry about the jokes that you don’t breathe anything that you can’t see.”

“There are some serious health effects related to air pollution still happening in the U.S.” –Barry Lefer

China has a cap-and-trade system for emissions (where businesses that exceed ceilings on emissions buy credits from others). That is still in its infancy with trials in five cities and two provinces, although it has made way for some major policy and legal reforms, said deLisle. However, China has yet to determine permissible emission levels and pricing mechanisms, he added. Corruption and “the possibility that people will game this” are other challenges the cap-and-trade effort will face, he noted.

In that context, deLisle pointed to a Chinese practice of “reduction from base line” whenever it becomes clear that a policy change is in the offing. “If you know a deadline is coming, you jack up the base line and then claim to depart from there.” Such attempts were also visible in China’s tax reforms and regulations on fluorocarbon emissions in earlier years, he said.

China is also trying to increase production of alternative energy “as fast as it can,” but it is unable to scale it up to the pace required to make a significant impact on Chinese demand, said deLisle. The country’s alternative energy sources are nuclear, wind and solar; it doesn‘t have sufficient natural gas reserves, he added.

The U.S. is acquitting itself relatively better in emissions control, according to Lefer. “We are doing a great job cleaning up the power plants,” he said. “Switching from coal to natural gas has had a good impact on both air quality and fossil fuel emissions.” Notwithstanding that progress, “there are some serious health effects related to air pollution still happening in the U.S.,” he added. “The focus should be on energy efficiency and win-win opportunities where we can reduce our climate impact and also clean up the air.”