China-US agree to ratify climate change pact: Why that's a big deal

China and the United States agreed on Saturday to work towards reducing carbon emissions and ratify the Paris Agreement, making it much more likely that the Paris Agreement will go into effect this year. 

How Hwee Young/REUTERS/Pool
President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a joint ratification of the Paris climate change agreement ceremony ahead of the G20 Summit at the West Lake State Guest House in Hangzhou, China, on Saturday.

China's President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama, the leaders of two nations which so often fail to see eye on eye, agreed on Saturday to work towards implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Together, China and the United States produce 38 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Saturday’s declaration of cooperation on climate goals is a signal to the world that these nations are willing to do what it takes to address climate change.

"Today's announcement is the strongest signal yet that what we agreed in Paris will soon be the law of the land," said minister-in-assistance Mattlan Zackhras, who works with the president of the Marshall Islands. "With the two biggest emitters ready to lead, the transition to a low-emissions, climate-resilient global economy is now irreversible."

With this pact, both countries have made the very public decision to ratify the Paris Agreement, which 200 countries agreed to (but didn't ratify) last December in Paris. The Agreement will take effect when it is signed by at least 55 countries producing 55 percent or more of global carbon emissions.

Many hope that Saturday’s joint announcement by China and the United States will spur other high emitting nations, such as Brazil and Canada, to ratify the agreement. Prior to Saturday’s announcement, 23 countries totaling 1.08 percent of world emissions had agreed to ratify.

The United States, however, produces nearly 18 percent of the world’s emissions, whereas China produces slightly more than 20 percent.

"The signal of the two large emitters taking this step together and taking it early, far earlier than people had anticipated a year ago, should give confidence to the global communities and to other countries that are working on their climate change plans, that they too can move quickly and will be part of a global effort," said Obama advisor Brian Deese, according to Reuters.

Among the things that China and the United States agreed to discuss were airplane emissions and hydrofluorocarbons. With airline emisssions representing two percent of all global emissions, the International Civil Aviation Organization is working on stricter guidelines.

Mr. Jinping and Mr. Obama also agreed to work towards reducing the production of hydrofluorocarbons, highly pollutant greenhouse gases, in negotiations later this year.

Perhaps most important, however, were the nations’ agreements regarding their own carbon emissions production. China agreed to stop its total emissions from rising by 2030, while the US pledged to reduce its emissions 26 percent (using 2005 levels as a baseline) over the next 15 years.

Officials in both countries voiced an eagerness to begin negotiations on climate matters as soon as possible, due to concerns over what might happen when the next US president enters the White House in January, according to Li Shuo, a climate advisor for Greenpeace. While Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has pledged to continue Obama’s climate initiatives, Republican Donald Trump has questioned the science behind climate change.

Saturday’s deal may also have started the ball rolling on a much faster ratification process than anybody could have predicted, reports the Associated Press. In contrast, the Kyoto Protocol took eight years to enter into effect.

Next, Obama and Jinping are scheduled to attend the G20 summit in eastern China this weekend, where attending nations will discuss ending subsidies for fossil fuels.

"This is not a fight that any one country, no matter how powerful, can take alone," Obama said of the pact. "Some day we may see this as the moment that we finally decided to save our planet."

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