Discussing the U.S.-China Climate Agreement with Professor Celeste Connors

Prof. Celeste Connors
Prof. Celeste Connors


WASHINGTON — The recent U.S.-China climate agreement has been lauded as both a groundbreaking development and business as usual. Do the developments from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) signal a new era in the fight against climate change? The SAIS Observer sat down with Practitioner-in-Residence Celeste Connors to get an expert opinion.

Is the lack of a binding mechanism significant enough to negate the announcement’s potential effects?

The U.S.-China climate agreement announced at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit paves the way for a new global agreement in Paris in 2015. These targets are likely to be binding at the national level rather than the international level; however, this could increase the chance that other major economies will put forward ambitious national targets next year. China’s targets to peak emissions by 2030 and to increase the share of non-fossil energy to 20 percent removes a key diplomatic obstacle to achieving a climate deal in 2015; for the first time China has moved away from its stance that rich nations must take sole responsibility and act unilaterally to curb emissions. The U.S. commitment to cut net emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, doubling the pace of reductions beyond 2020, comes five months ahead of schedule. The timing of the announcement injects momentum into the climate negotiations in Lima and puts pressure on other major economies, including India, to announce ambitious national targets.

There is a lot of contention around studies that suggest China’s carbon emissions will level off in 2030, regardless of the agreement. Do these claims negate the significance of the announcement?

While some figures suggest that the announcement doesn’t move beyond business as usual, this marks the first time China has agreed to a timeframe to peak emissions. Achieving this target will require China to adopt new energy policies now, before 2030. Perhaps more significant is the target to increase the share of energy from non-fossil fuel to 20 percent by 2030, which will require large-scale investments in zero-emission infrastructure. China has domestic incentives to act now. The announcement builds on broader economic development goals, including increasing energy security through efficiency improvements and curbing air pollution linked to premature deaths.

What does the agreement mean for the upcoming 2015 Paris Climate Talks? How could the talks harm or aid in the U.S. and Chinese attempts to achieve the announcement’s aims?

The joint announcement by the two largest emitters, which together account for 40 percent of global emissions, creates momentum for a new global climate agreement in Paris. It is the outcome of months of bilateral negotiations, which supported other breakthroughs like the agreement to work together to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a major contributor to global warming. The announcement puts pressure on major emitters to put forward targets that together could add up to meaningful emission reductions. There are still potential stumbling blocks and a risk that the countries most vulnerable to the climate change and least responsible for global warming, like the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), might block a deal because developed countries are not on track to meet their climate finance commitments. The U.S. announcement at the G20 Summit in Brisbane to commit $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund could help catalyze investments in resilient infrastructure in SIDS that reduces disaster risk in vulnerable communities and supports the broader negotiations.  

What kind of structural changes, if any, should we expect to see initiated by the Chinese government in their attempts to achieve the goals stated in the announcement? What effect will these have on Chinese-American trade?

China will need to undertake extensive structural reforms and adopt new near-term energy policies to achieve these targets.  To increase non-fossil energy by around 20 percent by 2030, China will have to deploy as much new zero-emission generation capacity, including renewables, nuclear, and hydroelectric, as they have coal-fired generation today. It is significant that this announcement took place at APEC, a regional trade forum. China, the U.S., and other APEC economies agreed in 2011 to cut tariffs on environmental goods, including solar panels and wind turbines. The U.S. and China took this a step further by announcing with other WTO Members at the World Economic Forum an initiative to eliminate tariffs on environmental goods in the WTO. Cutting these tariffs, which can be as high as 35%, will contribute significantly to reducing emissions by making them cheaper and more accessible globally.  

What kind of response, either positive or negative, should we see from industries in the other BRICS nations?

This puts the spotlight on India, which is the third largest emitter. India’s per capita emissions are still lower than other major economies and it will need to pursue a low-carbon development path to achieve poverty reduction goals while curbing emissions. Russia announced a national target at the September Climate Summit in New York. Other major economies, including Brazil and South Africa, have until March 2015 to put forward their national plans, but the U.S.-China announcement could encourage countries to announce sooner. Regional and plurilateral forums like APEC, G20, and the Major Economies Forum that engage the major economies can help drive progress in the multilateral climate negotiations.

With the recent Republican sweep of Congress, is there reason to worry for Obama’s ability to enact the changes necessary to achieve the announcements goals? How could the 2016 President election change this?

The announcement sends a signal that President Obama intends to act on climate change.  It builds on the President’s Climate Action Plan, which includes regulatory and executive actions to reduce emissions. Obama Administration officials have indicated that it would be possible to meet the new targets through these existing authorities. The U.S.-China agreement removes a key obstacle, namely that the U.S. will act only if China also agrees to reduce emissions; however, climate change will likely remain a big issue in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections.

Celeste Connors is a Visiting Scholar and Associate Practitioner-in-Residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in the Energy, Resources and Environment Program and teaches courses in international energy, environmental policy, and sustainable development. Celeste has over a decade of experience working at the intersection of economic, environment, energy, climate, and international development policy. Before joining SAIS, Celeste was the Director for Environment and Climate Change at the National Security Council and National Economic Council at the White House. In this capacity, she developed U.S. climate change, environment, and clean energy policies for a myriad of international institutions, including APEC and the G20, and preparations for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Prior to joining the White House, Celeste served as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, Greece, and Germany. She also held positions at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, served as the Climate Change and Energy Advisor to the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and worked for the City of New York. Celeste holds an MSc in Development Studies from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a BA in International Relations from Tufts University. Celeste is a member of the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) Steering Committee, an Advisor to the Hawai’i Green Growth Initiative, and a Term Member on the Council on Foreign Relations.

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