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China and U.S. Building Momentum to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Mark W. Roberts, EIA Senior Counsel and International Policy Advisor, and Carolyn Zhong, EIA Trade and Policy Specialist

In September, China and the United States announced they had formulated a "common vision" to secure an ambitious global climate agreement at the highly anticipated United Nations’ climate meeting in Paris later this year; and that the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitting nations will stand together at the Paris meeting to push for emissions targets that "ramp up over time in the direction of greater ambition." There have been mixed reviews on whether this alliance will bring as robust a climate agreement as the world needs to keep global temperatures below a two degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

However, while many news outlets reported on this news, most reporters failed to notice that both China and the United States have been taking tangible mitigation steps in advance of any agreement requiring them to do so.

In the historic November 2014 Joint Announcement on Climate Change, President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama announced enhanced actions to accelerate the long-term transition to low-carbon economies, mindful of the goal of limiting global temperature increases by two degrees Celsius. The Xi-Obama Agreement is beginning to deliver tangible results in both countries’ domestic climate policies.

On September 15th and 16th, China and the United States held the First Session of the U.S.-China Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities Summit at which the leaders of various states, provinces, cities, and counties in China and the United States announced they will cooperate to take enhanced actions to mitigate carbon emissions, increase climate resilience, share experience, and strengthen bilateral cooperation.

September 16th, International Ozone Layer Protection Day, marked the 30th anniversary of the Vienna Convention for Protection of the Ozone Layer. In the spirit of environmental protection, the Environmental Protection Department of China and the UN Environment Program (UNEP) held a symposium on eco-friendly cooling and heating technology and energy savings in Beijing, with over 230 experts participating. Chen Liang, Director of the International Cooperation Center in the Environmental Protection Department, stated at the meeting that China will encourage new technology and boost a new, low-carbon market to combat climate change. Specifically, China intends to develop alternatives to ozone depleting substances (ODS) that will also eliminate the use of HFCs—a class of manmade greenhouse gases that were initial replacements to ODS—and will also be highly energy efficient. HFCs are hundreds and thousands of times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide.

While China has been a major producer of both ODS and HFCs, the direct transition from ODS to low global warming potential (GWP) alternatives and the general reduction in use of HFCs has become a trend in Chinese industry, where companies are transitioning air conditioners, refrigeration equipment, heat pumps, and foam blowing agents directly from ODS to natural refrigerants such as carbon dioxide (GWP of 1), hydrocarbons (GWP < 8), ammonia (GWP of 0), and water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has similarly completed two rulemakings, one to ban the use of high-GWP HFCs in certain sectors, and the second to allow the use of innovative alternatives to ODS that use natural refrigerants.

Building on all of the momentum that began last year, China and the United States released their joint climate announcement on September 25th, which included both a shared vision for the outcome in Paris, as well as concrete domestic commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. For China, this includes a national cap-and-trade program to be launched in 2017 to cut power sector and industrial carbon emissions; green power dispatch to prioritize renewable energy; vehicle efficiency standards, building efficiency standards; increasing its forest stock; and limits on HFCs use. For the United States, the commitment includes the Clean Power Plan to cut power sector emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030; efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles; methane standards and limits on HFCs.

China went one step further and pledged to contribute ¥20 billion (equivalent to $3.14 billion USD) to create the China South-South Climate Cooperation Fund to support climate action in other developing countries. This move is on par with the $3 billion that the United States has committed to the Green Climate Fund. The announcement also included plans to cut emissions in cities, and to limit public financing of high carbon projects domestically and internationally (what some experts might consider analogous to the 2013 announcement from the United States to discontinue public funding of new coal-fired power plants in all but the poorest countries).

After decades of talking about actions on climate change, the steps being taken by China and the United States domestically show that both countries are starting to walk the talk.

China and the United States’ initiatives are a major step forward and make an agreement more likely to come out of the climate meeting in Paris. But these initiatives alone will not prevent the worst impacts of climate change; according to scientists, global temperatures must not exceed a two degree Celsius increase—advice that all countries should heed. Therefore, EIA continues to urge China, the United States, and all other countries to do more and commit to greater emissions reductions. We also look to the Montreal Protocol on Substances the Deplete the Ozone Layer, often considered the world’s most successful environmental treaty, for a reality check. The Montreal Protocol started with a modest 50 percent reduction of ODS by developed countries; now after several strengthening amendments, 196 countries have eliminated 98 percent of all ODS. It is time for all countries to finally start reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and by following the example of China and the United States’ joint commitments to ramp up with greater ambition over time, strengthen plans to reduce HFCs and all other greenhouse gases in order to protect the world from climate change.

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