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November 12, 2014

Racing to the Top with China

What a difference a week makes. This morning we awoke to the news that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have negotiated a historic joint announcement on climate change and clean energy cooperation. Coming from the world's two largest economies and two biggest carbon emitters, the new targets set by President Obama and President Xi Jinping have put the international community on notice: It's time to put up or shut up.

Three major, overarching goals were announced:  

  • The U.S. will cut its net greenhouse gas emissions to between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

  • China will attempt to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030 (and possibly sooner).

  • Also by 2030, China will increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy it uses to around 20 percent.

China's pledge to cap its emissions is momentous -- and should compel India and other developing nations to set their own ambitious targets. But the game changer in this announcement -- and an underreported one at that -- is China's goal of producing 20 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by the end of the next decade. To accomplish that, China will need to install 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of energy with zero emissions by 2030 -- an amount almost equal to current total U.S. electricity generating capacity.

Such rapid clean-energy growth will accelerate a positive feedback loop. As China drives toward its goal, clean energy prices will continue to drop. Solar and wind are cheaper than fossil fuels in many places already; as prices plummet even further, the transition from dirty fuels will pick up speed, helping China, the U.S., and other countries meet and exceed their climate targets and save money in the process.

The U.S. and China aren't acting out of sheer altruism, though -- both countries will also gain tremendously by leading the transition to a clean-energy economy. Sure, cutting carbon pollution is a driving factor, but there's enormous benefit in doing so. Fighting climate change is something that we get to do, not just something that we have to do. According to the Center for American Progress, an accelerated transition to clean energy in this country will create 2.7 million new jobs in the clean energy sector nationwide. No doubt the Chinese have performed a similar calculus.

Of course, China had already made it clear that renewable energy was a national priority. At a time when we face yet another congressional debate over whether to renew the Production Tax Credit for wind power in this country, China is erecting wind turbines like yard signs in a swing state -- it already has more wind power than the entire European Union, and will install a record amount of both solar and wind again this year.  

So, yes, while this agreement means that China and the U.S. are standing together to take responsibility for climate action, this partnership is just as much about opportunity. That, more than anything, is why clean energy is unstoppable. The opportunities it represents -- both economically ("Consumers and businesses will save literally billions of dollars," said one administration official) and in so many other ways -- are a powerful force for bringing people, industries, and, in this case, nations together. Just this week, for instance, I attended an event highlighting how the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Sierra Club have worked together to help create more than a thousand new construction jobs with good wages and benefits through responsibly sited large-scale solar projects in California.

One more point on this announcement. Those who keep a clear, unflinching eye on the total carbon reductions needed to keep warming below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit will say that the U.S. could in fact do much more than cut its carbon by 26-28 percent a decade from now. They're right. The EU has indicated it will cut its carbon pollution by 40 percent (by 2030) -- using a more challenging baseline figure. And our fragile planet certainly needs China to cap its emissions sooner than the end of the next decade.  

But even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single (in this case, giant) step. Two centuries ago, Napoleon presciently compared China to a sleeping giant that would one day awaken and shake the world. But he also made an observation about leadership: "One can lead a nation only by helping it see a brighter future -- a leader must offer hope." President Obama and President Xi Jinping offered that hope today by stepping forward together.

And what about the Republican leaders gnashing their teeth in Congress? What message of opportunity are they offering? How, exactly, do they propose to lead the nation forward when their rallying cry is "Retreat!"?

Don't ask me. I'm not a scientist. But I do know that real leadership should be acknowledged when it happens. For all those who have marched, testified, lobbied, litigated, invested, divested, tweeted, posted, and donated to fight against dirty fuels and for 100% clean energy, take a bow. We're building momentum. And also, please take a moment and send President Obama a message thanking him for acting on climate and elevating our clean energy ambitions.


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Michael Brune

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