Krugman insists that the “agreement between China and the United States on carbon emissions is, in fact, a big deal”:
[T]he principle that has just been established is a very important one. Until now, those of us who argued that China could be induced to join an international climate agreement were speculating. Now we have the Chinese saying that they are, indeed, willing to deal — and the opponents of action have to claim that they don’t mean what they say. Needless to say, I don’t expect the usual suspects to concede that a major part of the anti-environmentalist argument has just collapsed. But it has. This was a good week for the planet.
Douthat, on the other hand, downplays the importance of the agreement:
Symbolism and public leadership do matter in international affairs, even if they don’t necessarily matter as much as climate hawks (like other sorts of hawks) persistently believe. But nothing about this widely-hailed bargain as yet invalidates the basic case for skepticism about the quest for a global climate regime, because nothing about China’s actions as yet invalidates the argument that the globe’s diverse group of developing-world actors are only ever likely to act to explicitly cap emissions when it seems to be in their immediate national interest (or when, as in this case, that “cap” may just a description of a trend), and that they are therefore very unlikely to be meaningfully bound by international rules or regulations that in any way directly constrain their ability to emit as their economies seem to require.
Being skeptical of climate change regulations in this sense does not mean believing that no developing nation’s emissions will ever level off or fall, or that no developing nation will ever take steps to limit their emissions. Indeed, the skeptics assume that both will happen, as those nations get richer, technology advances, domestic constituencies for environmentalism develop and so forth. They’re just doubtful about the power of diplomacy and international treaties and carbon regimes to meaningfully accelerate this process (as such regimes have mostly not to date in contexts far more promising than the People’s Republic of China). And with that doubt, in turn, comes a skepticism about the wisdom of having the United States take steps on its own that don’t necessarily pass a domestic cost-benefit test in order to somehow set up a larger process that probably isn’t going to work anyway, and that our rivals will have every incentive to seek to game in order to gain at our expense.
But Ryan Cooper thinks China has good reason to act:
China is very seriously vulnerable to climate change. It could gut the nation, taking the ruling Communist Party down with it. Fifty million or more Chinese citizens could be displaced by rising seas in the coming decades. Drought and desertification, both fueled by climate change, will cause havoc with China’s water supply and farmland, which are both already insecure. Additionally, China’s reliance on filthy coal power is responsible for jaw-dropping environmental problems, causing a reported 670,000 deaths annually, and many times that number of respiratory illnesses.
All this points towards a massive Chinese self-interest in slashing emissions as fast as possible.
Ronald Bailey keeps his expectations low:
Looking at the previously announced energy and climate policies of both the U.S. and China, the new pledges appear to add little to their existing plans to reduce their emissions. The new Obama pledges basically track the reductions that would result from the administration’s plan to boost automobile fuel economy standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 and the Environmental Protection Agency’s new scheme to cut by 2030 the carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants by 30% below their 2005 level. Xi was no doubt aware that a week earlier an analysis of demographic, urbanization, and industrial trends by Chinese Academy of Social Science had predicted that China’s emissions peak would occur between 2025 and 2040.
Supporters hope that the joint announcement is the prelude to a “great leap forward” to a broad and binding global climate change agreement at Paris in 2015. Perhaps, but the U.S. and China left themselves plenty of room to step back if their pledges become inconvenient.
Ben Adler doesn’t want to “let the enemy be the perfect of the good”:
Senate Republicans have made it impossible for Obama to sign a binding treaty to reduce emissions, because they wouldn’t vote to ratify it. So now that Obama has made a non-binding agreement with the world’s largest carbon polluter, they criticize it for … not being a binding treaty. Speaking on Fox News, Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation cynically asked, “How are you going to monitor it? Is there any enforcement? Will the Chinese abide by the agreement?” No sir, there is no enforcement mechanism, because your favored party would never vote for an agreement that contained one. But we can track progress — as China builds wind farms and solar arrays, they won’t be invisible.
And Elizabeth Economy thinks the “real win for U.S. President Barack Obama is keeping China in the tent or, in political science speak, reinforcing Beijing’s commitment to the liberal international order”:
The real takeaway from the Obama-Xi meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is that China has put itself back in the U.S. game. The entirety of the package—extending visas, establishing rules of the road for maritime and air encounters in the western Pacific, reducing or eliminating tariffs on as many as two hundred information technology goods, and pledging to do more on climate change—is a win for the United States. That doesn’t mean it is not a win for China too; it is. It is just a win that binds China more deeply to U.S.-backed international security, trade, and environmental regimes.
(Photo: US President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping reach out to shake hands following a bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 12, 2014. By Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)