A Historic Bilateral Pledge: Reduce Carbon Emissions

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WASHINGTON — It was a historic moment. A bilateral pledge to reduce carbon emissions by the world’s two top emitters. A toast was proposed. President Obama’s wine was a shade of pale yellow and President Xi’s a darker crimson. This highly anticipated agreement set specific targets and action items for collaboration in the world of cleantech, and the expected media frenzy did not disappoint. But amidst the flurry of press, one must ask the question, why now? With the 2015 Paris Climate Talks fast approaching both leaders want to encourage other nations to jump on the carbon-conscious bandwagon. But why else? What was in the coffee that morning that allowed President Obama and President Xi to finally make a mutual commitment on CO2 emissions?

The evidence indicates that this agreement is more a felicitous alignment of national interests than a historically cooperative and ambitious agreement. Both countries are merely looking at the trend lines of emissions, estimating the curves, and then stating the obvious. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. emissions levels have already decreased by ten percent compared to 2005 levels. The NYT points out that President Obama already made a similar pledge to the UN in 2009. He is beating on the drum to signal more investment into cleantech and this deal provides convenient percussion for a lame-duck president.

China’s aggressive push for renewable and nuclear energy is well known to the energy community. Transmission line construction lags behind the rapid installation of wind and solar capacity due to feed-in tariffs and other financial guarantees provided to renewables investors. Furthermore, China is waging a war against toxic smog in its cities, and declaring a war against climate change provides a convenient banner for the costly and painful transition away from coal. So yes, Obama and Xi are committed. But they already were for other reasons.

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