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In the lead up to this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Summit (APEC) summit in Beijing, there was hope among environmentalists that China and the US would agree a significant deal on climate change – one area where the fraught bilateral relationship is comparatively smooth. And indeed both sides today made major announcements: Barack Obama pledged that the US would cut greenhouse-gas emissions between 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, while Xi Jinping set targets to peak carbon-dioxide emissions around 2030 and to boost China’s share of non-fossil fuel energy to around 20% by the same year.

But, beyond the diplomatic success, how significant are these figures? Only last week, climate scientist Kevin Anderson told thethirdpole.net that China needed to peak emissions by the mid 2020s to give the world a “reasonable” chance of staying within 2C of warming and avoiding dangerous climate change. The US meanwhile must have "eliminated fossil fuel use from their energy system early in the 2030s”, he said. We’ve been gathering reaction from around the world, and will continue update this as more comes in:

Guan Dabo, professor in climate change and international development, University of East Anglia:

The joint commitments to curb carbon emissions by China and the US are a good start for a possible global deal in Paris next year. The most important and positive part is that such a pledge renews the hope for a global climate-change mitigation agreement in the post-Kyoto era. The US has chosen to be back where it stood in 1997. Since America’s annual carbon emissions have kept almost constant (with a slight decrease during the recession) at 6,000 million tonnes per year over the last decade, a 26%-28% of reduction by 2025 is easy to achieve in the next 10 years. It sets an example for other developed countries, namely Japan, Australia and Canada, who have not shown themselves motivated to cut emissions in recent years.

But is not ambitious enough. I would welcome a stronger commitment in Paris. Such efforts from the developed world will help, but will not be sufficient to meet the 2 degree target. And without substantial emission reduction in the global south, a 2 degree target will be hopeless.

China plans to peak at 2030 and extend its zero emission energy sources targets from 15% in 2020 to 20% in 2030. This can only be a part of its overall commitment for curbing CO2 emissions. Chinese emissions will be about three times the US level in 2030. China’s efforts will therefore determine the outcome of global climate-change mitigation. I also hope to see a more ambitious plan announced by China in Paris. Indeed, China can afford to set a cap for emissions, at least in wealthy cities like Beijing and Shanghai and coastal provinces. China has undergone an experiment in emission trading in seven provinces, which can pave the pathway for a national emission cap in the near future.

An emission peak in China is not the end of climate change mitigation, but only the start. The most important and challenging task will be working out how to prevent further emission leakages from China to other global south countries. Our planet cannot afford to have another emission giant, such as India, Latin American or Africa, and to wait another 20-30 years for it to peak. Equal and fair access to green technologies, global emission control policies and economic mechanisms as well as sustainable consumption will be crucial.

Joanna Lewis, associate professor, Georgetown University:

The joint climate announcement by the US and China could mark a turning point in bilateral relations, and is certainly a sign that climate has become the cornerstone issue of US-China cooperation. China’s announcement that its emissions will peak by 2030 or earlier is on the earlier side of when recent modelling studies out of both the US and China have demonstrated that an emissions peak could occur. If you review recent studies by Chinese and US researchers, their baseline scenarios put a CO2 peak year in the 2035-2040 timeframe, and their most ambitious scenarios in the 2025-2030 timeframe. Therefore the announcement of a peak year of 2030 or earlier would fall into the ambitious range.

Achieving an emissions peak is dependent on coal use also peaking likely several years in advance of any CO2 peak, which will be extremely difficult for China to achieve. While there are signs of declining rates of coal use for the first time in decades, a shift away from coal in China will require even more aggressive programs to deploy low-carbon sources of energy, and to make energy use far more efficient. Also important will be the actual level at which China’s emissions peak, since this has major implications for the trajectory of total global emissions.

Of the new bilateral clean energy announcements released today, the extension and expansion of the US-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) is great news, since the CERC is arguably the most expansive bilateral cooperation initiative to date, and it has been making considerable progress in facilitating joint R&D while protecting the IPR involved. In addition, the initiative to launch a large-scale geologic carbon-sequestration project in China could be a huge step towards commercialising carbon capture and storage technologies.

Li Shuo, climate campaigner, Greenpeace China:

From a political and diplomatic perspective, this is very important and positive signal from two major leaders in the world. They are doing this ahead of the UN timetable and it’s always good to have big emitters providing clarity on their emissions. For us, this is really game-changing. What they put on paper today, I have the confidence they will deliver, not only because we see on the same paper the names of Obama and Xi Jinping but also because on the China side we already have coal consumption going down in absolute terms. That really inspires confidence – if that’s already happening in 2014, how much more might we hope for?

But these targets should be the floor rather than the ceiling of ambition. We would call for China to peak much earlier than 2030.

Under the UN timetable, countries are due to put forward their “intended nationally determined contributions” towards the 2 degree target by March next year. What we see from the US today is likely to be the main component of their offer. But for China the most important thing we are expecting is a specific CO2 emissions target. There are a few questions here. Question A is whether that’s going to be an absolute target, and I have a pretty high level of confidence that it will be – they have already set a peak year and you have to do calculations on absolute targets to get that. And Question B is the timetable of that target – whether it will be for 2025 or 2030, or a combination of the two. We think a shorter commitment period from 2020 to 2025 will prevent us from locking in low ambition. Lima will be a critical conference for us to reach that agreement.

Sam Geall, research fellow at University of Sussex and chinadialogue’s executive editor:

Today’s US-China joint announcement on climate will not only attract praise for its ambition, but also some recurring questions – not least about China’s record of transparency on its emissions. Recognising this, it’s a discouraging signal that during the APEC Summit in Beijing, the US Embassy’s air quality readings in the capital have been censored. Data quality has long been a controversial issue in China, where researchers recently calculated that air pollution caused 670,000 deaths in 2012.

China has shown admirable commitment to low-carbon development in its national plans, targets and policies, but an official culture of secrecy remains one of the major domestic constraints on its capacity to enforce and implement such regulations at a local level. Thanks to sustained pressure from concerned residents, China has seen encouraging breakthroughs in the realtime disclosure of environmental information, it would be a shame if China were to pollute this legacy with a needlessly censorious response to citizens’ demands for accurate information about the environment.

Andrew Steer, president, World Resources Institute:

The US and China should be commended for putting their initial pledges on the table so early. This should inject a jolt of momentum in the lead up to a global climate agreement in Paris.

China’s pledge to increase non-fossil fuel energy and peak emissions around 2030 as early as possible is a major development — and reflects a shift in its position from just a few years ago. But it will be very important to see at what level and what year their emissions peak. Analysis shows that China’s emissions should peak before 2030 to limit the worst consequences of climate change.

The US target shows a serious commitment to action and puts the US on a path to reduce its emissions around 80% by mid-century. This pledge is grounded in what is achievable under existing US law. However, we should not underestimate the potential of innovation and technology to bring down costs and make it easier to meet — or even exceed — the proposed targets.




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