Surprise, even shock, greeted the announcement this week that China and the United States had agreed to strengthen their co-operation on cutting greenhouse gases and pledged to reduce emissions.
President Xi Jinping announced that China had set a target for its emissions to peak by 2030, while US president Barack Obama said his country was aiming to reduce emissions 26-28 per cent by 2025, compared with 2005.
As the world’s two biggest economies, China and the US are the world’s two largest polluters, producing about 45 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide between them, so signs of positive progress are always welcome.
But is this a real advance? Will we see a deal at next year’s talks in Paris on climate change?
There are sceptics. The satirical news site The Onion ran a story headlined “China vows to begin aggressively falsifying air pollution numbers”.
Irrational exuberance is certainly not on the cards, but there are meaningful signs that China is serious. China has a history of committing to targets, then wildly falling short of its pledges. But there are also powerful reasons to believe Xi when he says his country wants to reduce pollutants.
Over the past decade, pollution in China has become a major issue, stark and depressing. There are dissenting voices among the general populace as pollution affects health – a recent study linked pollution to 670,000 early deaths in China.
Xi is no environmental activist, but he knows he must resolve pollution to keep China’s burgeoning middle class onside.
China leads the world in developing wind and solar energy projects. And solutions will involve increased use of nuclear power, as well as hydro.
Coal power, the prime culprit behind its foul air, accounts for too much of its industry, but it is being gradually phased out in the major cities – Beijing will have no coal plants by the end of 2017.
It’s a delicate balancing act. China is the world’s biggest polluter, but it has long pointed out that, on a per-capita basis, it has much lower emissions than the US, and sees pollution as a by-product of development.
Pragmatic approachChina is nothing if not pragmatic. When corruption became a destabilising element, Xi ordered a nationwide crackdown and included some high-profile scalps in the dragnet to show he was serious. It now looks like something similar is happening in the way China is setting out to tackle carbon emissions.
By taking the initiative on climate change, the Chinese president has a chance to show that his country is a true superpower, with the world’s biggest polluter becoming the world’s most effective agent in meeting its targets on carbon emissions.
He will have an easier time passing the legislation to start the process than the Democrats in the US. The Republican opposition have already said they find Obama’s climate change plans “job-crushing” and have vowed to oppose them.