US-China climate deal could speed cleaner future

Skeptics say President Obama’s new climate deal with China’s leaders is mostly symbolism.

Before the announcement, China had already planned to start cutting its overall greenhouse gas emissions after 2030, the target date announced Wednesday by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The United States has been reducing its emissions for years; Obama’s goal to cut them by 26 percent by 2025 – from 2005’s pre-recession levels – is not as radical as it sounds.

Still, symbolism can go a long way toward shifting public opinion.

In this case, the symbolism involves two giant geopolitical adversaries who disagree on many issues – yet agree that dumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year is a problem that transcends national disputes.

The United States and China are also paradigms of the advanced and developing worlds. The clashing interests of developed and undeveloped nations have been the chief barrier to international action on climate change.

In America, many political leaders have argued that the United States can’t make a dent on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere as long as China, India and other developing countries keep on aggressively building coal-fired electrical plants. So why should Americans give up cheap coal power for a futile cause?

Yet China and others point out that Western industrial economies polluted their way to prosperity before adopting cleaner technologies and urging carbon limits on poor countries.

As one American energy analyst put it, “For too long, it’s been too easy for both the U.S. and China to hide behind one another.”

China has been coming around on the issue to keep its own people happy. Even by conservative estimates, smog is killing tens of thousands of Chinese citizens a year. Parents who can afford it often send their children to less polluted areas to protect them from asthma and other respiratory diseases. Pedestrians routinely wear face masks in some Chinese cities.

That’s a terrible price to pay for unfettered, coal-driven economic growth. China’s willingness to set emissions targets may encourage holdouts like India to do likewise.

In the United States, the Republican response to Wednesday’s agreement was discouraging but predictable.

Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate majority leader, described it as requiring the Chinese “to do nothing at all for 16 years while these carbon emissions regulations are creating havoc on my state and other states throughout the country.” McConnell ran for re-election in Kentucky this fall denouncing what he called the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

It’s tragic that climate science has become a partisan wedge issue in this country. That might eventually change if China’s energy policy can no longer be invoked as an excuse for doing nothing.

The ultimate solution, for developed and undeveloped nations alike, will be broad adoption of low-carbon energy technologies, chiefly solar, wind and nuclear. The most significant component of China’s commitment Wednesday was a plan to derive 20 percent of China’s electricity from no-emission sources by 2030.

That’s almost as much power as the entire United States currently produces. At that point, economies of scale will likely have made solar technology highly competitive. There’ll be no need then for a war on coal to nudge the world toward clean energy.