The APEC meeting on early November 2014 had many issues on the table: military coordination on the turbulent waters of the Pacific, the Information Technology Agreement, a grudging handshake between the leaders of China and Japan. Nevertheless, one of the most promising outputs of the meeting came in a perhaps surprising issue: climate change. The United States promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, and China, in an unprecedent move, promised that it would peak its emissions by 2030, or earlier if possible.
Anyone interested in the UNFCCC-centered climate change regime will instantly recognize the United States and China as the two most “difficult” players on the game. They are the world’s first and second largest greenhouse gas emitters; China has a hard time promising carbon cuts because of its commitment to fast and dirty development, and the US has a hard time accepting that medium-income developing countries should be able to free ride on climate agreements, not committing to binding cuts. This deadlock was in the heart of the astounding failure that the Kyoto Protocol represented.
I have defended here in Mundorama last year that a possible solution to the paralysis of the climate change regime would be the advent of a “Climate G15”: getting the world’s 15 largest greenhouse gas emitters to sit together and broker a deal among themselves would be a salvation buoy to the seemingly doomed UNFCCC regime and, most importantly, a shimmer of hope that the future of humankind will be less gloomy.
Of course, the deal between the United States and China is far from being a solution to the pressing problem of man-made climate change. The most important thing about this deal is not the substance of it, even though the things agreed are very relevant: what is really exciting about it is to see the two main countries involved in this issue move towards the right track if the problem is to be solved.
The next challenges in putting together a climate deal will not be easy. First of all, the midterm elections carried out in 2014 in the United States guaranteed a solid Republican Party control of both houses in the US Congress, and Republicans are famously little cooperative when it comes to climate change; in fact, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, one of the fiercest climate change deniers, is being considered to head the US Senate environmental policy committee. The United States will always be the center of any effective climate deal, and American voters must see global environmental policymaking as a priority in order for this to happen.
Another challenge will be to expand this US-China in size and scope to comprise other relevant actors such as the European Union, Russia, India and Japan to work out a concise, binding and effective deal, and to bring this deal to the UNFCCC democratic, all-encompassing framework to work out its bottlenecks and move forward in the most relevant areas of adaptation, technology transfer and a myriad of other issues. The US-China climate deal is definitely not a solution. But it points in the direction of a promising track, and in such a gloomy scenario this is already good news.
Henrique Barbosa is a MPIA Candidate 2016 at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California, San Diego