Viewpoints: New Carbon Emission Targets

The People's Climate March in New York City on Sept. 21 drew more than 300,000 participants. (Photo: Susan Melkisethian)

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recent issued its most urgent warnings to date that we are running out of time to mitigate the most catastrophic effects of climate change. In the last three weeks, the highest polluting countries have finally shown some leadership on the issue. Yesterday the United States and China made a surprise announcement, with China setting a date to peak its carbon emissions and the United States pledging to cut its emissions by more than a quarter by 2025. This comes on the heels of a landmark agreement reached by the European Union to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. Both announcements have been met with their share of criticism. Some say the U.S.-China deal is more politically significant than substantive, as both countries are hindered by formidable domestic constraints. Critics of the E.U. deal say that the targets set are simply not enough to save the planet. However, these agreements bode well for the negotiations in Paris next year that are intended to establish a new international climate change treaty. presents a sampling of global reporting on the recent announcements out of China, the United States and the European Union.

United States and China

India – The Hindu, Nov. 12: China and the United States have agreed on a timetable to limit emission of greenhouse gases. The breakthrough was achieved during talks between visiting U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, ending a 20-year discord between the world's two leading economies on how to combat climate change. In a joint announcement on Wednesday, the U.S. agreed to reduce by 2025 its emission of greenhouse gases by 26 percent to 28 percent below its 2005 level. China stated its intent to peak emissions of carbon dioxide in 2030, if not earlier. It also agreed to raise the share of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent, in its primary energy mix, in the next 16 years. This would entail China shifting towards clean energy generated by nuclear, wind, solar and such zero-emitting resources. The surprise agreement has brightened prospects for a climate deal in Paris next year.

China – Xinhua, Nov. 13: China and the United States jointly account for about 45 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and their commitments therefore send a strong signal toward the climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change … in Paris next year and could catalyze the conclusion of a global climate agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, the [Norwegian environmental think-tank] Bellona Foundation said in a press statement. "This early leadership on the part of the United States and China will play a crucial role in boosting ambition by other countries, expected to announce their national emission reduction contributions in the first quarter of 2015," it added.

Canada – The Globe and Mail, Nov. 12: The U.S.-China climate deal will put pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make greater progress on reducing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions as he heads into an election year. … The bilateral agreement from the world's two largest emitters will pressure other countries to deepen their climate commitments as the international community works towards a global treaty to be concluded at the United Nations summit in Paris next year. It raises particular challenges for Harper, who has consistently tied his government's climate ambitions to those of the United States, arguing the two major trading partners must move together. However, Canada is currently well short of hitting its 2020 target to reduce GHG emission by 17 percent from 2005 by 2020. The U.S. has a better chance of hitting that goal as its coal-fired electricity system switches to natural gas, and President Obama looks to accelerate the trend with new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. … The U.S.-China deal could provide important momentum as countries prepared to gather in Lima later this month for the 2014 summit, which must make major headway if an agreement is to be included in Paris.

United Kingdom – Reuters, Nov. 13: More than 400 protesters stuck their heads in the sand on Australia's Bondi Beach on Thursday, mocking the government's reluctance to put climate change on the agenda of a G20 summit this weekend. Prime Minister Tony Abbott's perceived failure to address climate change is all the more galling in the wake of an agreement between the United States and China on Wednesday to limit their carbon emissions, they said. … Abbott called climate change science "crap" in 2009 and said coal was "good for humanity." Australia repealed a tax on greenhouse gas emissions in July, the only country to reverse action on climate change.

Indonesia – Jakarta Post, Nov. 13: It wasn't clear how either the U.S. or China would meet their goals, nor whether China's plan to allow its emissions to grow until peaking in 2030 would negate any reductions in the U.S. The dual announcements from President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, unveiled Wednesday in Beijing, came as a shock to environmentalists who had pined for such action but suspected China's reluctance and Obama's weakened political standing might interfere. In Washington, Republicans were equally taken aback, accusing Obama of dumping an unrealistic obligation on the next president. … Scientists have pointed to the budding climate treaty, intended to be finalized next year in Paris, as a final opportunity to get emissions in check before the worst effects of climate change become unavoidable. The goal is for each nation to pledge to cut emissions by a specific amount, although negotiators are still haggling over whether those contributions should be binding.

European Union

United Kingdom – The Guardian, Oct. 23: European leaders have struck a broad climate change pact obliging the E.U. as a whole to cut greenhouse gases by at least 40 percent by 2030. But key aspects of the deal that will form a bargaining position for global climate talks in Paris next year were left vague or voluntary, raising questions as to how the aims would be realized. As well as the greenhouse gas, two 27 percent targets were agreed—for renewable energy market share and increase in energy efficiency improvement. The former would be binding only on the E.U. as a whole. The latter would be optional, although it could be raised to 30 percent by a review in 2020. … But a clause was inserted into the text that could trigger a review of the E.U.'s new targets if other countries do not come forward with comparable commitments in Paris. The Brussels summit was dominated by arguments over energy savings and climate policy, with countries from Poland to Portugal pleading special circumstances and threatening to veto any breakthrough unless their demands were met.

Netherlands – Eurosite, Oct. 23: The deal follows weeks of doubt over whether an agreement could be reached. Poland's Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz was under pressure at home to veto the 2030 target because Poland is reliant on coal and there are fears that the target could impact Poland's economic growth. A similar stance has also been taken by Hungary and Slovakia. Although the U.K. was willing to agree to a 50 percent reduction in emissions, it is against setting a target for energy efficiency. There was also disagreement about whether the emissions reduction target should be binding or not. … A number of environmental groups have voiced disappointment over the deal. The European Environmental Bureau's Secretary General Jeremy Wates said, "With this abysmal result, Europe's leaders have failed their citizens and failed the world. More and more extreme weather events such as flooding and wildfires are already hurting people and their communities all across Europe. Adopting a set of targets to cut energy waste by 40 percent, roll out sustainable renewables to 45 percent of the energy mix and cut emissions by 60 percent is what the science of climate change demands, and is also what will help Europe get on its feet."

Switzerland – International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, Nov. 3: Leaders agreed at the October summit that 43 percent of the emissions reduction target would be met using the E.U.'s Emissions Trading System (ETS). According to media reports, free carbon allowances were offered to countries such as Poland in order to sweeten the overall deal. … In a win for countries such as Spain and Portugal, the conclusions make a bid to bolster energy connectivity between member states. The conclusions renew commitments to take urgent measures to achieve a minimum target of 10 percent of existing electricity interconnections. The Commission is also mandated to report regularly on the process and technical needs of this planned integration in order to arrive at a target of 15 percent intra-E.U. export of generation capacity by 2030. This ambition would see the bloc invest in new pipeline and grid infrastructure across E.U. borders. Lisbon and Madrid reportedly pushed hard in the final stages to ensure the inclusion of such language in order to export the region's excess wind and solar power across the Pyrenees. A specific mention of both countries is made in the document alongside the Baltic States. Over the past 10 months, the situation in Ukraine has also put considerable pressure on the shape of the new framework, with the EU's eastern European members raising specific concerns around energy security. A third of the region's gas is imported from Russia, with almost half passing through Ukraine.

Germany – Europe Online Magazine, Oct. 24: Carbon dioxide emissions are to be cut by at least 40 percent, compared to 1990 levels. This is a collective E.U. goal, with countries expected to do their share, taking account of their wealth and prior efforts. The target is to be achieved with the assistance of the EU's Emissions Trading System (ETS), under which companies buy allowances for the right to pollute. … The agreement also includes the following concessions to poorer countries. Member states whose per capita GDP is below 60 percent of the E.U.'s average can choose to give free ETS allowances to the energy sector until 2030. These should "promote real investments modernizing the energy sector," the text says. This will benefit Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, according to recent figures by E.U. statistics agency Eurostat. Many of these countries still rely heavily on polluting energy sources such as coal.

United States – The New York Times, Oct. 23: Curbing the emissions that contribute to a changing climate has long been a popular cause in Europe. Policymakers here frequently highlight how their industries and citizens emit lower levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide than those of the United States and other industrialized countries. But there is not the same enthusiasm in Europe to embrace the green agenda as there was five years ago, before the climate conference in Copenhagen that ended in failure. The protracted downturn in Europe set off by the sovereign debt crisis has crimped funding for green projects. Also, the takeoff of technologies to tap cheap shale gas—despite the highly uncertain future of that industry in Europe, where the technology is unpopular—has dented prospects for some renewable alternatives. Another factor adding to the complexity of developing strategies to cut emissions in Europe is the disaster at Fukushima, Japan, where an earthquake and a tsunami in 2011 led to meltdowns at a nuclear plant. Germany has since stepped up its phaseout of nuclear technology even though it emits almost zero planet-warming gases.