Updated by Brad Plumer on November 11, 2014, 11:12 p.m. ET
This is a big deal. US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping just announced a major agreement to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions and tackle global warming over the next few decades:
By itself, this agreement won’t solve climate change — and it’s arguably not ambitious enough. But politically, it marks a sharp break from the two countries’ long stalemate on the issue. And the agreement could help nudge along the ongoing UN climate talks, which hope to culminate in a global deal on emissions in Paris by December 2015.
Here’s a breakdown of the deal, which was reportedly hashed out over nine months of quiet negotiation:
For the first time ever, China has set a hard deadline for its emissions to peak
The US pledge: As part of the bargain, the US government has pledged to reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 — an acceleration of its existing goal to reduce emissions 17 percent by 2020.
One big unknown here, however, is whether US policymakers can actually follow through on this. The country’s carbon-dioxide emissions are currently 10 percent below 2005 levels, but they’ve started to rise again of late. The US Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules to curb emissions from existing power plants, but that’s unlikely to be enough to achieve a 28 percent cut. And Congress is deadlocked on climate. So where will the additional policies come from?
The China pledge: For the first time ever, China has set a goal of having emissions stop growing by 2030 or so — and possibly earlier. China will also aim to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil sources by 2030. (China isn’t reducing its emissions as quickly as the US; the logic is that this is fair since China is still poorer.)
Critics will argue that China’s emissions target is vague and not ambitious enough. Some experts had been predicting China’s emissions would peak around 2030 anyway — and US negotiators had been pushing for an earlier date. That said, China has long refused to set a hard deadline for any emissions peak. So this is a political shift.
Meanwhile, China’s pledge to get 20 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2030 is considerably more audacious. “It will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.” That’s staggering — and it remains to be seen if China can do all that.