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China’s Climate Promises: Necessary, But Not Sufficient

The new U.S. and Chinese climate goals are important, but they’re not enough to stop the problem

Chinese President Xi Jinping in a meeting with President Obama a few years ago (Martin H. Simon/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Last night, the U.S. and China unveiled a new deal to help fight global climate change, the first time China has ever agreed to cap its rapidly ballooning greenhouse gas emissions. Under the terms of the new agreement, China is promising to have its emissions peak by the year 2030. The U.S. has also set new, more aggressive terms, promising to cut greenhouse emissions by 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by the year 2025.

China is the world's most populous country, and its rapidly industrializing economy made it the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter just a few years ago. China's ascendancy bumped the U.S. from the number one spot it had held for the previous century or more.

Together, the U.S. and China account for roughly 40 percent of global carbon emissions, says the Washington Post, so any new limits set by these two countries bears significant practical, as well as symbolic, weight. After all, it's much easier for other countries to shirk responsibility for a global problem when the two largest contributors aren't holding their own.

As the Post points out, actually hitting these goals will not be easy for either the U.S. or China. And, as Al Jazeera notes, China's agreement, while aggressive in principle, is actually deceptively non-specific:

“Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose country's emissions are still growing as it builds new coal plants, didn't commit to cut emissions by a specific amount. Rather, he set a target for China's emission to peak by 2030, or earlier if possible.”

So, China's emissions are set to peak by 2030. At what level they'll peak isn't clear. Assuming a good natured interpretation of the deal, however, China's approach would mean that they are now on track to tackle their share of the global climate problem.

As Smart News has written before, in order for the world to keep global warming below the agreed upon 2°C limit, greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2040. With their plan to do so by 2030, and maybe even earlier, China is giving the global community a shot in the arm—one that might just be enough to help us avoid the worst of global climate change.

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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