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China Will Probably Have an Easier Time Than the U.S. Upholding Its End of the Climate Deal


Now that the U.S. and China have struck a deal to curb carbon emissions, President Obama is going to have a hard time making good on that promise. Even if Obama pursues a solely regulatory route, his departure in 2016 means that achieving a goal set for 2025 is far from a sure thing. A Gallup poll this year found climate change to be a low priority for most Americans, who so often treat climate change as a long-term issue. 

President Xi, on the other hand, is likely to have a much warmer reaction from his party and constituents. For one, there’s precedent: modifying a coal and oil-heavy diet has been one of the Communist Party’s highest priorities for years. Moreover, rhetoric about the downsides of fossil fuel consumption is not just rhetoric: City residents and businesses suffer the effects of severe air pollution that is primarily caused by burning fossil fuels. A 2013 report found that people living in northern China, where air pollution is most severe, have shorter lifespans than those in the south.

In fact, the preparations for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit included a desperate scramble to get air pollution under control. Car use was limited, factory production was halted, and workplaces and schools shut down to encourage Beijingers to vacation in nearby provinces, taking their carbon emissions with them. On Tuesday, air pollution still clocked in at ten times the recommended level—an atmosphere that is far from the image of “blue sky, green mountains, and clear rivers” that President Xi would prefer to project in his effort to make China a world leader.

Pollution not only damages quality of life and reputation, it has negatively impacted the productivity of Chinese businesses. The poor air quality has deterred skilled foreigners and Chinese expats from moving to China. And when pollution is at its worst, as it was when a toxic haze descended in December 2013, businesses and schools were shut down across major Eastern coast cities and airplanes were grounded. In all, the World Bank has estimated that resource depletion and environmental degradations cost China 9 percent of its Gross National Income in 2008 alone. Reducing emissions would mean substantially restructuring the Chinese economy toward the service industry instead of manufacturing, said Georgetown University Professor Joanna Lewis. But that, too, is in the interests of the Communist Party, Lewis says, since the shift would be in line with "a broader strategy about [China's] place in the world."

China’s reliance on fossil fuels is a headache for Beijing for reasons of stability, too. Increasing numbers of local protests stemmed from environmental complaints, and Chinese poll respondents often place the environment among their top concerns. Mass discontent over environmental concerns could throw a wrench in the way the Communist party works (essentially, by promising economic growth and improved quality of life). Plus, with so much of the economy reliant on imported oil, China faces an energy security problem as well. A shock to global oil prices or a blockade of Chinese imports could be disastrous for the economy.

The Communist Party has been worrying about the impact of China’s rampant fossil fuel consumption for years. The twelfth Five-Year Plan, introduced in 2011, set out to increase the share of consumed energy that comes from non-fossil fuels, improve energy efficiency, and reduce carbon intensity (the carbon emissions measured per unit of GDP). At that point, China had already come close to achieving the goal of reducing carbon intensity by 20 percent, set out in its eleventh Five-Year Plan. Even before the climate change agreement, China has had plenty of incentive to go green.