Energy & Environment

After decades of stalled or blocked reforms, China’s environmental protection effort may finally be gaining traction. There are scores of new initiatives; some positive indicators, such as falling levels of coal consumption; and a brand new minister of environmental protection, Chen Jining, who brings actual environmental expertise to the table. Still, as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has noted, the country’s environmental challenges were a long time in the making and will be a long time in the fixing. So before touting China as an environmental success story, here are four indicators to watch over the next 12 to 18 months

On the heels of a landmark U.S.-China climate agreement, 2015 will be a critical year for China’s environmental and energy policy. A revised and much stricter Environmental Protection Law went into force on January 1; new amendments to the Air Pollution Law are likely to be put in place; and the National Development and Reform Commission will draft a new five-year plan.

Everywhere you look in China, progress in protecting the environment is evident. China rang in 2015 by adopting a new, stronger environmental protection law. The leadership has issued tough new targets for regional coal consumption and air quality. Chart-topping levels of investment in clean energy continue despite plummeting oil prices. And courts are levying significant fines on polluting enterprises to help force improved practices. Yet all of this effort will come to naught if the continued mismatch between the leaders’ ambitions and the capacity of local officials to realize that ambition is not addressed. While there are a number of reasons for weak implementation of central laws and directives—corruption, lack of interest, and misaligned incentives among them—at heart Beijing demands too much and invests too little in the fundamentals of environmental protection. Local officials are ill-equipped to meet the ever-growing list of environmental challenges central officials set before them.

While environmentalists, Democrats and other supporters of last week’s U.S.-China climate deal rushed to outdo themselves with hyperbolic congratulations (“game-changer”, “historical”, “this century’s most significant agreement”), the other side can’t dump enough cold water: “terrible”, “changes nothing”, a “waste of time.” And in a way, the skeptics are absolutely right. This deal will definitely not solve the climate problem.

The 12 November announcement by presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama of their countries' post-2020 targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions has been hailed as historic. It is important for a number of reasons. It is the first time China has made a formal, quantified commitment to emissions reduction (rather than merely slowing emissions growth). It reflects Obama's decision to use executive action to cope with important issues, so as to avoid the need for congressional approval (see Survival Editor Dana Allin's blog post from 18 November). Moreover, as a joint action between the world's two top emitters, it gives new impetus to the multilateral negotiations to reach a global agreement in Paris in December 2015.

Ann Carlson and Alex Wang are right to emphasize the domestic commitments of both the United States and China in the joint announcement on climate change, which was announced last week in Beijing. While not a formal agreement, this document reflects a meeting of the minds of the world's two largest emitters. The two countries have committed to quite different actions as befits their very different stages of development, but they have both advanced considerably even since Copenhagen in 2009 in their ability to commit to actions for the rest of the decade and for what their likely emissions trajectory will be for decades beyond that.

It is now two weeks to the day since President Obama's party suffered another ‘shellacking' – though he didn't use the word this time – in midterm elections. There was much immediate chatter about the president's supposedly diminished power at home and abroad. In a couple of news interviews and a blog post, I tried to put this in context. In terms of structural power relations in US domestic politics, not much had changed, while the notion that the president was now crippled in his conduct of foreign policy I found even less convincing. It's not that an electoral defeat of this magnitude will have no effect, but the effect will be marginal.

President Obama and the "green" lobby actually think China is going to honor the new U.S.-China climate-change agreement that pushes both nations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions over the next 15 years. China agreed to a "target" of deriving 20 percent of its energy needs from renewable resources "around" 2030. In exchange, Mr. Obama agreed that American families and businesses will aim to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels.

Since the failure of the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, both the United States and China have largely retreated from big international agreements, each waiting for the other to move first. This week’s bilateral accord sets the stage for future international discussions. That would seem to be a big deal.

The news from Beijing this week that the U.S. and China are committing to ambitious goals on climate change is, we think, monumental. No two countries are more important to tackling the problem than the largest carbon emitter over the past two centuries, the U.S., and the largest current emitter, China. While many observers are focusing on the ramifications of the announcement for upcoming international negotiations, we believe that the announcement also has potentially profound domestic effects for both countries. For the U.S., the announcement could have significant implications, both legal and political, for the centerpiece of President Obama's climate policy, proposed rules for electric power plants. For China, the announcement is a signal that economic transformation remains the long-term goal. Both countries will need to overcome significant domestic resistance to achieve their stated goals but in our view the joint announcement strengthens the hands of both the U.S. and Chinese presidents.