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Science & Environment

Climate Change Deal Requires U.S., China To Overhaul Energy Use


The deal that President Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping signed this week to curb climate change will require overhauling the way both countries use energy. Climate and energy experts are sorting out what has to happen to make the deal work. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, they agree the goals are ambitious.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The U.S. has actually lowered its emissions of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet over the past seven years by an average of about 1.5 percent a year. The new target will mean almost doubling that rate of change over the next 10 years. China's goal is easier in the short term, no cuts in emissions now. Instead, China says its emissions will peak and start to drop by 2030. For the U.S., two measures are in play that will help lower emissions in the short term. Those are limits on emissions from vehicles and mandatory cuts in carbon dioxide from power plants. Elliot Diringer is an analyst at the climate think tank called the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

ELLIOT DIRINGER: I think that the U.S. number is predicated primarily on the vehicle standards that are in place and that will begin to cut in half the greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and on the power plant rule which is, at the moment, is a work in progress.

JOYCE: The power plant rule isn't official yet, it's due from the Environmental Protection Agency next year. Republicans and some coal state Democrats say it will destroy the coal industry and have vowed to fight it. China doesn't have to cut emissions until 2030, but even making that deadline requires revamping its energy economy starting now. China says it will overhaul its electric power industry so that one-fifth of its electricity will come from something other than fossil fuels. Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University Colorado says that's a huge undertaking.

ROGER PIELKE, JR: That's roughly the same as deploying one nuclear power plant of carbon-free energy every week starting today until 2030.

JOYCE: As difficult as these goals appear some see them as a glass half-full. Companies that are in the renewable energy business for example stand to see demand for their products rise.

ANNE KELLY: They are popping champagne this morning.

JOYCE: Anne Kelly is the climate director for CERES, an organization whose members are companies trying to reduce their carbon footprints.

KELLY: It sends the right signal to investors and companies who have known for a long time that the transition to a clean energy economy was one of the greatest economic opportunities we face.

JOYCE: The bilateral deal between the U.S. and China also represents a new way of negotiating climate action. The Kyoto treaty that limited emissions from developed countries ended in 2012 and the U.N. has failed to find a replacement that satisfies the world's governments. Jennifer Morgan, a climate analyst for the World Resources Institute, says this deal could galvanize that effort.

JENNIFER MORGAN: There is a new model of international cooperation emerging. At the U.N. climate talks it's a mixture of national commitment, national binding commitments, laws, regulations.

JOYCE: Commitments between individual governments, rather than treaties set by unanimous votes in the United Nations. Morgan says this deal could encourage other countries to craft commitments to cut carbon, but Pielke at the University of Colorado is less sure of that.

PIELKE, JR.: If you are in one of the poorer parts of the world where access to electricity is scarce and poverty is rampant, you probably aren't paying much attention to these promises from the rich countries around the world.

JOYCE: The world will find out at the end of next year. The U.N. is asking the world's governments to come to Paris with their own commitments to cut greenhouse gases and craft a new international treaty.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.