Real Leaders

US-China Climate Pact A Good Start, But Not Quite Enough

The meeting in Lima, Peru, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Global Warming, which concluded on Sunday without a pathbreaking agreement, sent a strong message about how seriously we should be treating the global climate crisis.

But, really, it is only the actions of a select few nations that will have any lasting impact in terms of stopping or reversing global warming. Among those critical nations are the United States and China, who together contribute massively to climate change. In the wake of the Cold War, the US emerged as the dominant superpower on the world stage.

The Americans’ capitalist system had outlasted Soviet Russia’s communist philosophy and the US seemed poised to dominate the globe for decades to come. And, for some years after, it seemed there would be no new rival and no new war. However, recent decades have brought on a new superpower to rival the US: China.

Beijing’s rise was swift and it continues to this day, bringing new meaning to the relationship the countries have and new meaning to China’s place in geopolitics. Historically, relations between the US and China have been somewhat shaky but they are relatively stable today, despite significant cultural and political rifts that persist. The rise of China coincided with the increased significance of a new war of sorts, a war where China and the US are on the front lines.

This war is not being fought between China and the US, or between any nations. Instead, it is a war against human-induced climate change. Though this war has no singular enemy, in November the world’s leading and emerging superpowers united in response to climate change. The agreement between them on November 12 was unprecedented in the history of either country: the US will cut total emissions by more than a quarter by 2025 while China – whose industrial sector is still in the ascendant – will hope to reach peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. As ambitious as the terms of this deal were – and whether either country will be able to follow-through is unknown – the real question has to be: is it even enough?

China is a superpower on the rise, whose ancient cultures have pressed for environmental stewardship since long before the discovery of fossil fuels. America, on the other hand, has been spewing massive amounts of greenhouse gases for decades and is only just beginning to see the error of its ways. Together, though, I believe the US and China have the power to either save or destroy our planet, based on their actions in the coming decades and their adherence to this deal.

The key factor in determining whether our fight to contain global warming is succeeding or failing is global average temperature – and the temperature of our planet is on the rise, dangerously so. Right now, the signs are looking particularly bleak: if our global temperature rises by more than two percent, the scientific community tells us that there is likely no turning back. So what does this mean for you and me?

The United Nations Environmental Program released its 2014 report last month and the world’s leading panel of experts on global warming and climate change gave us a very direct, tough prognosis: to keep below the two percent rise in global average temperatures, humans can only dump another 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, in total. Should we fail, the consequences would not only be irreversible, but catastrophic.

So, is the China-US climate deal going to be enough to stop us from getting to 1,000 gigatons? Sadly, this writer is not very optimistic. According to a report by Business Insider, China and the US alone will contribute more than 600 gigatons of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere between now and 2050. All the other countries together, meanwhile, make up approximately 60 percent of global carbon emissions.

This means that by 2050, even if the US-China deal holds, we’ll have dramatically exceeded our 1,000-gigaton limit and the global temperature will have surely rise past the two percent threshold. I appreciate the value of the US and China coming together as partners in the war against human-induced climate change.

However, I think that neither country truly appreciates the scale of the problem – China is too busy growing and America is too busy clinging to its power. It’s easier to think about this problem in terms of something even larger than the moon landings – solving global warming is bigger than any single leader, bigger than any single nation. It’s a global problem that will require a global solution.  

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.

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