US-China climate deal puts heat on Australia

Giles Parkinson,

Australia’s backtracking on climate change policy – dumping the carbon price and seeking to slash the renewable energy target – is looking like an increasingly dumb and isolating policy position as the US and China announced an ambitious new climate deal.

In a landmark agreement between the two countries – one that could herald a global pact by Paris in December, 2015, President Barack Obama pledged deeper US cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions and China will for the first time, according to its leader Xi Jinping, set a target for capping carbon emissions.

US president Barack Obama and Chinese vice premier Liz Zing

US president Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the APEC summit.

The two leaders signed the agreement at the APEC summit in China, just days before the G20 meeting in Brisbane where Australia has refused to have climate change on the official agenda. It also came as the Pope sent a letter to prime minister Tony Abbott, a catholic,  urging him to take action on climate change.

Under the deal, Obama is setting a new target for the US to  cut greenhouse gas emissions at 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025, according to a Bloomberg report. The current target is to reach a level of 17 per cent below 2005 emissions by 2020.

Xi committed China to begin reducing its total carbon dioxide emissions, which have been steadily rising, by about 2030, although the actual cap could come much earlier, Bloomberg quoted the White House as saying in a statement.

The US said the agreement will ‘inject momentum into the global climate negotiations on the road to reaching a successful new climate agreement next year in Paris.’

The two countries left open the possibility of increasing the targets should the combined commitments fall short of the goal of 2C.

The Climate Institute’s Erwin Jackson said the US pledge was equivalent to a 30 per cent reduction target for Australia by 2025. The TCI last week recommended it aim for 40 per cent target.

Jackson said it was clear that ‘Direct Action’ could not achieve that target.

‘The biggest problem with domestic policy at the moment is that it’s divorced from global reality. So we have got to start planning for 50 years, not looking at our navel thinking about the next five.’

The US and China are the world’s two biggest economies and the two biggest aggregate emitters. It follows a commitment by the EU, the third largest emitter, to cut emissions by at last 40 per cent by 2030.

Bloomberg notes Obama has made climate change one of the central issues for his final two years in office, though his agenda is under attack by Republicans, who do not accept the science of climate change and are set to take control of both chambers in Congress at the start of next year.

China will also set a renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2030.

Jake Schmidt, director of international programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental group told Bloomberg that China and the US account for 40 per cent of the world’s greenhouse emissions, and so shape how the market invests.

‘‘They’ve also been two of the most difficult players in the history of the climate negotiations so the fact that they are coming out and saying they are going to take deep commitments will be a powerful signal to the rest of the world,’ he said.

Australian Greens leader Christine Milne said the move should be a massive wake-up call to Tony Abbott.

‘His continued climate denial and his destruction of the environment is reckless,’ Milne said.

‘Tony Abbott is so busy unwinding Australia’s climate policies that he failed to notice the global economy is changing around him. He is risking billions of dollars in investment and thousands of jobs.

‘Tony Abbott is engaging in intergenerational theft while the rest of the world moves to protect future generations and the planet. Until the Abbott government took control, Australia was a world leader in climate policy with an emissions trading scheme that was considered template legislation for other nations.’

The US-based World Resources Institute said both leaders had clearly acknowledged the mounting threat of climate change and the urgency of action, even though more needed to be done.

‘The US and China should be commended for putting their initial pledges on the table so early. This should inject a jolt of momentum in the lead up to a global climate agreement in Paris,’  said Andrew Steer, WRI President and CEO.

‘The US target shows a serious commitment to action and puts the US on a path to reduce its emissions around 80 per cent by mid-century. This pledge is grounded in what is achievable under existing US law.

‘However, we should not underestimate the potential of innovation and technology to bring down costs and make it easier to meet–or even exceed–the proposed targets.

‘China’s pledge to increase non-fossil fuel energy and peak emissions around 2030 as early as possible is a major development—and reflects a shift in its position from just a few years ago.

‘But it will be very important to see at what level and what year their emissions peak. Analysis shows that China’s emissions should peak before 2030 to limit the worst consequences of climate change.’

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