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A Climate Change Pact That Includes the U.S. and China Isn't Hopeless. Here's Why.

Ronald Schemidt/Getty Images

The fight to stop climate change can seem pretty hopeless. The Republican Congress doesn’t even believe global warming is real, which means progress is limited to what President Barack Obama can do on his own, through executive authority. Australia and Canada, once in the environmental vanguard, are now hotbeds of climate denialism. And nobody is quite sure what’s going in China, which not long ago passed the U.S. as the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases.

But there are bright spots, too. One of them is the European Union.

Last week, despite internal divisions, EU members agreed to a resolution calling for at least a 40 percent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2030. The idea was to send a strong message to the rest of the world, in advance of next year’s Paris negotiations, that the issue of fighting climate change has momentum and that the European nations are already doing their part. "It opens the door to greater ambition by all countries," Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief, said in a statement. "The fact that the 28 countries of the EU, in different stages of economic development, can reach a good compromise bodes well for the ability of all nations to come to an effective agreement next year.”

Boasts like this are a little bigger than the deed. The EU had already set a long-term goal to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent, over 1990 levels, by 2050, which is about the level of cuts needed to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of global warming—the threshold that policymakers have set as a goal to avoid the worst risks of climate change. Jim Skea, who is a scientist with the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London and vice-chair of an IPCC working group, told me over e-mail that reducing emissions by 40 percent will make it "extremely difficult" to meet that target. Instead, Skea said, the reduction needs to be somewhere in the 45 percent to 50 percent range.

But that may have been impossible politically, at least for now. Coal-rich countries like Poland almost blocked the European Commissions's proposal and would not have agreed to anything more strict without equally generous concessions. And 40 percent isn’t necessarily the maximum reduction EU is contemplating—it’s the minimum. "There was a late surge for the in mission of the words 'at least' in front of 40 percent, which is very important," World Resource Institute's Climate and Energy Program Director Jennifer Morgan said. "It signals a floor, rather than a ceiling, of ambition for Europe." Jake Schmidt, the international director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that the language "at least" means there's opportunity to strengthen it in the year left until Paris.

In the end, Europe can’t do the job on its own. But there were was another encouraging development last week—from China. For the first time this century, China's emissions from coal fell last quarter, based on a Greenpeace analysis of Chinese government data. Quarterly coal data is volatile, and it's unclear how much of this reduction is a by-product of the economic slowdown. China's economy is still growing, but at a slower pace, meaning that people and businesses use less coal. But Schmidt, for one, thinks China's aggressive deployment of solar energy and against air pollution are part of the story—and perhaps a sign that China will commit to an aggressive plan of action, under which coal use would “peak” early enough to avoid global warming’s most catastrophic effects. "We'll find out in the next couple of months if China is going to commit to coal and emissions peaking," he said. "Those are not just pie-in-the-sky options anymore. There is really a political debate on those being delivered." 

Meanwhile, Europe's target sets a new standard for the U.S. to meet. Sometime in the next few months, the Obama Administration will put forward its own goal for carbon emissions cuts by 2025 or 2030. To achieve the same 80 percent reduction in carbon footprint, it would have to reduce emissions even more aggressively than Europe just agreed to do, because Europe's emissions fell while the U.S.'s grew between 1990 and 2010, Skea said. But the EU’s action means Obama can say, honestly, the U.S. will not be alone in taking concrete action on climate change. Maybe that will make his job a little bit easier.