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For U.S.-China Deal On Greenhouse Gases, The Devil Is In The Details


President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have signed a deal that sets targets for emissions of greenhouse gases that warm the planet. The U.S. aims to reduce emissions significantly over the next 10 years. The Chinese are not cutting their emissions now, but they say emissions will stop growing by the year 2030. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, climate experts say either goal will be tough to meet, but setting these targets could at least reinvigorate international negotiations on climate.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: the deal made this week says the U.S. will cut its emissions a lot, bringing the level down 26 to 28 percent below what it was 10 years ago. The deadline for achieving that is 2025.

China, however, is not cutting back any time soon. Rather, China says its emissions will peak by 2030 and then come down, and it promises to be generating a fifth of its energy from renewable carbon-free sources - wind, solar, nuclear, hydro - by that time. For people who have been in the thick of international climate negotiations, this is good news.

ELLIOT DIRINGER: It's hard to imagine a more important signal than the world's two largest carbon emitters saying together that we think we can do this.

JOYCE: Elliot Diringer is with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, and he's been involved in climate talks since the first international treaty to curb emissions was drafted in Kyoto in 1997. That treaty is no longer in effect, and it actually did not bring down worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Negotiations for another treaty are scheduled for the end of next year in Paris. Diringer says the China deal adds momentum to a process that has stagnated in recent years, and it applies what he calls institutionalized peer pressure to other large economies like India and Brazil.

DIRINGER: If the U.S. and China are ready to enter into a deal - and let's not forget the European Union which also has its numbers out there - I think there will be strong pressure on other countries to be part of that deal.

JOYCE: Diringer also notes that the deal breaks an impasse that's gone on for years between China and the U.S. Neither one wanted to do anything that would handicap its economy vis-a-vis the other's.

DIRINGER: People on both sides have pointed to weak action by the other to delay action at home, and hopefully this announcement put those excuses behind us.

JOYCE: But the U.S. Congress is unlikely to see this deal as a winner. Most Republicans are skeptical of climate deals and even the reality of global warming. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, among the most powerful members of the newly Republican Senate, said it's a bad deal.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The agreement requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states around the country.

JOYCE: The regulations in question are being written by the Environmental Protection Agency. They will put sharp limits on carbon dioxide from coal fired power plants in the U.S. Republicans and some coal-state Democrats have vowed to fight them. And energy analysts say without those new regulations due out next year, there's no way the U.S. can make the president's new emissions target.

Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado and a critic of the Kyoto approach of setting emissions targets and then figuring how to meet them.

ROGER PIELKE: It's really important to understand that targets don't reduce emissions. Technology deployment reduces emissions. Without the plans in place for how we're going to expand nuclear or solar or wind, the targets are merely symbolic.

JOYCE: But Pielke says there is value in this deal, even if the targets are going to be very difficult to meet.

PIELKE: The best news to come out of this is that we have a measuring stick against which to actually evaluate progress. And within a year - two years, we will know if the U.S. and China are both serious about these commitments.

JOYCE: The notches on that measuring stick, according to Pielke's calculations, require China to build a nuclear power plant a week or its equivalent in solar or wind to meet its goal. The U.S. will have to reduce its emissions by over 2 percent a year, starting now. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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