What the Historic China-U.S. Climate Change Agreement Means for You

Get ready for a boom in renewable energy, electric cars, and more energy-efficient homes—if the two countries make good on their promises.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Nov 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hannah Hoag reports on the environment, global health, science, and science policy for Nature, Discover, Wired, and others.

Now the renewable energy boom really begins.

About two-thirds of the electricity generated in the United States in 2013 was from coal, natural gas, and petroleum—fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide and drive global warming and climate change. But now that the U.S. has agreed to a deal with China that would see both countries curb their greenhouse gas emissions, we’re apt to see production of renewable energy jump—high.

The surprise deal announced Tuesday creates ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gases in the U.S. and commits China to controlling its emissions.

Under the scheme, the U.S. will reduce carbon emissions between 26 percent and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025—doubling its current annual reductions from 1.2 percent to between 2.3 percent and 2.8 percent. For its part, China will halt its rising greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and increase renewable energy’s share of power production to 20 percent.

It all means—if the two countries keep their promises—that within the decade, we’ll see more fuel-efficient cars cruising the streets, and we’ll be more likely to be heating and cooling our homes and charging our phones with electricity generated by the wind and the sun.

That’s because the targets are achievable. China’s already huge appetite for solar and wind energy will grow even larger, likely spurring technological innovation that makes renewable energy even more competitive with fossil fuels.

In recent years, American carbon dioxide emissions have fallen steeply, largely because of the recession and because it has been choosing natural gas over coal to make electricity. But the country has also boosted the production of solar and wind energy. Since 2007, U.S. consumption of solar- and wind-generated electricity has more than quadrupled, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The deal comes as good news as countries gear up for global climate talks set to take place in Lima, Peru, in December. That’s the warm-up for negotiations that will begin in late 2015 in Paris to establish new legally binding emissions reduction targets from all countries. The past two decades of climate negotiations have faltered, in part because the world’s two largest carbon emitters—China and the U.S.—could not agree on how to reduce their emissions.

It all seems promising. But to have a fighting chance keeping temperatures below the 2-degree Celsius threshold scientists have determined is necessary to stave off catastrophic climate change, the world must reduce global emissions by 5 percent to 7 percent annually, according to Glen Peters, a climate policy analyst at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

“Easily the most important aspect to the agreement is that the world’s two largest carbon dioxide emitters have set public goals to reduce emissions,” said Steven Davis, an earth systems scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

But, he added, “the specific targets aren’t that impressive.”

Davis explained that to have a 50 percent chance of keeping temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius, China would have had to start reducing its emissions by 5 percent per year beginning in 2013.

“It’s an extremely ambitious rate of reduction,” he said.

In the U.S., emissions peaked around 2005 and now hover slightly above what they were in 1990. Overall, U.S. emissions decreased about 10 percent between 2005 and 2013. Adding another 16 percent or so is a good but modest goal.

The biggest obstacle is coal.

In September 2013, the Chinese government announced plans to reduce coal use in the country’s smoggiest municipalities by pushing energy production to coal gasification plants outside city limits.

China’s plans to build 50 coal gasification plants, which emit even more carbon dioxide than burning coal, will produce an estimated 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to a report issued in July by Greenpeace East Asia, which is based in Beijing. In 2010, China accounted for 46 percent of the 7,238 metric tons of coal consumed globally that year.

Nonetheless, China has set ambitious renewable energy targets over the past two years—and its meeting them. Once the world’s factory that churned out solar panels for other countries, China is now one of the planet’s biggest consumers of renewable energy.

Even before Tuesday’s agreement, the Chinese government had mandated that 700,000 megawatts of renewable energy come online over the next six years, including 200,000 megawatts of wind and 50,000 megawatts of solar.