US, China Face Distinct Challenges on Climate Change

January 16,2015

BEIJING— In his previous State of the Union address, President Barack Obama highlighted what he called the urgent need to address climate change — a topic that is likely to come up again this year. The world’s two biggest polluters, the United States and China, recently announced a landmark deal aimed at breathing new life into global efforts to address climate change.

In China, where choking smog frequently fills the air, there is little debate about the need to curb emissions.

"In China, the awareness of climate change and the consensus that this is a real problem that we need to crack is much higher than in the United States," said Li Yan, who heads Greenpeace’s energy and climate change campaign in Beijing. "Also, in the government, the leadership, there aren’t so many critics, there aren’t so many skeptics.”

Weaning China off its biggest source of energy, coal, will not be easy. In the deal reached last year, China pledged for the first time to peak its emissions by 2030.

Li says there are signs Beijing could move even faster, despite its heavy reliance on cheap fuel.

“It’s possible that China could have an economy-wide coal control scheme in its next five-year plan, next year. And if China does so, we have a much better chance of turning the climate curve [sooner].”

In Washington, Republican lawmakers call the deal a job-killing agreement that threatens middle class workers.

“The agreement requires China to do nothing at all for 16 years, while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states around the country,” said U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.).

China also has economic concerns about the deal. Beijing may have pledged to peak its emissions by 2030, but it is already taking steps to reduce polluting industries and that means job losses, at a time when the country’s economy is already slowing.

But having the world’s two biggest emitters in agreement is important for global climate change efforts, says Li Yan. And the hope is that is that their example, if successful, will help spur other countries to aggressively curb their own emissions.