Managing Emissions from the Middle Kingdom to the Midwest: The China-U.S. Climate Deal

In China the concern among Chinese officials is due to the fact that efforts to reduce emissions slow down GDP growth.

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The Chinese and American presidents in Beijing. Credit: Reuters

An important step in countering global climate change was reached this week as China and the United States agreed to cooperate on reducing emissions. Beijing and Washington are the two largest polluters, which magnifies the importance of the aforementioned deal.

Previous efforts to cut emissions have been stymied by alternating Chinese or American intransigence, yet this latest bilateral pact appears promising. Specifically China has pledged to see its emissions peak around 2030, thereafter declining, as well as committing itself to generating twenty percent of its energy from renewable sources. The United States promised to reduce emissions between 26 and 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

The scale of these promises have caused many to both laud and critique the deal, with proponents stressing the scope of these bilateral commitments, and skeptics arguing that either more can be done, or that stated goals are not enforceable. Li Shuo, a researcher for Greenpeace East Asia voiced his approval of the plan, yet called on both countries to do more, stating that the China-US Deal “should be the floor on which [both countries] work, rather than a ceiling.” Furthermore, while both Xi Jinping and President Obama have praised the deal, local politicians in both countries have raised concerns.

In America, the newly emboldened Republican opposition is concerned over the perceived untrustworthy nature of Chinese government. Republicans argue that Beijing cannot be trusted to fulfill its half of the bargain, and that American efforts to reduce emissions would merely hurt the economy. This view is not entirely unjustified, as recently the Chinese government blocked U.S. embassy Beijing air pollution data from popular websites and apps used by many Chinese in the polluted metropolis. The exclusion of American data forces the populace to rely solely on official Chinese data, often seen as less accurate, showing lower levels of pollution. This blocking of data coincided with the signing of the emissions deal, and can be seen as part of China’s efforts to showcase Beijing in a good light whenever the international spotlight is focused on the national capital.

Republicans are also concerned about the impact of the deal on the American economy. House Speaker John Boehner characterized the China-US emissions deal as “jobs crushing.” Similarly, incoming Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has also expressed doubts over the pact. McConnell represents Kentucky, a coal rich state, and successfully campaigned for re-election as an opponent of Obama’s supposed “war on coal.” Moreover, Senator Jim Inhofe, the incoming chairman of the Senate committee on the environment and public works is a professed climate change denier. Inhofe has also stated that “it’s hollow and unbelievable for China to claim it will shift twenty percent of its energy to non-fossil fuels by 2030.”

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It is interesting to note that while American politicians view GDP growth and jobs as inexorably linked, recently Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated that “China cares more about jobs and livelihoods than the GDP target.” While the reality in China is more complex than this, this statement remains important because it disconnects notions of well-being from economic growth. While hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty by Beijing’s economic policies, there is growing dissatisfaction over pollution related issues. The Chinese government is highly pragmatic and intent on maintaining stability; citizen unrest due to pollution is taken seriously by Beijing.

In China many regional and provincial leaders are also worried that the emphasis on the environment will impact GDP growth. Given the single party nature of the Chinese system and the stated acknowledgment by the central government of the problem of climate change, Chinese politicians do not espouse anti-climate change views. In China the concern among Chinese officials is due to the fact that efforts to reduce emissions slow down GDP growth. This is particularly important because the promotion prospects of regional and provincial officials are highly tied to meeting GDP growth figures. While Beijing may want to lessen emissions it still overwhelmingly grades officials on economic matters: local bureaucrats are caught in the middle.

While China hawks like Sen. Inhofe put little stock in Chinese promises, it is important to note the actions which Beijing is taking to counter pollution. In 2013 China generated 9.8 percent of its energy through renewable means, with non-fossil fuel energy production slated for 15 percent by 2020. Moreover Shandong province is adding air quality as a criterion to the evaluation process of local officials. Similarly Gansu province is reassessing its evaluation process to focus less on economic expansion.

The central government is keenly aware of the costs associated with unchecked growth. Since 2004 China has funded the Green GDP project which tracks the impact of environmental damage on national growth. A 2006 report showed that 338,000 premature deaths across 600 cities occurred to due pollution. The project has tracked the environmental cost of development, which stood at $83.51 billion in 2004 and $251.21 billion in 2010, or 3.5 percent of GDP.

Jeremy Luedi has a Bachelor’s consisting of an Honors Specialization in Political Science, major in History, minor in Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction from The University of Western Ontario. Born and raised in Switzerland, Jeremy is fluent in English and German, and has Swiss and Canadian citizenship. Read other articles by Jeremy.