Obama climate plan: bold, but will China go along?

President Obama's climate plan aims to address climate change with an eye toward global partnerships. Without cooperation from China and the developing world, international climate treaties have fallen short – a shortcoming Obama hopes to remedy with his climate plan.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President Obama, right, talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Annenberg Retreat at Rancho Mirage, Calif., earlier this month. An bilateral agreement on hydrofluorocarbons offers a glimmer of hope for the international push in Obama's climate plan.

As President Obama unveils sweeping policies to address global climate change in a speech at Georgetown University Tuesday, his focus is on curbing power plant emissions at home and boosting US investment in efficiency and clean energy. 

But climate change is a global problem, and the atmosphere, as they say, doesn't care where the carbon comes from. And whatever the United States does, the fate of global warming lies in the hands of China, India, and much of the developing world. China's growing emissions in the past decade has swamped the decline in emissions in the US.

This phenomena helps explain why a third of Mr. Obama's climate plan is devoted to addressing emissions abroad. By fostering bilateral initiatives with major emitting countries and promoting free trade of clean-energy technology, the plan aims to build globally on domestic climate goals. 

International climate change cooperation has fallen far short of environmentalists expectations, and some are skeptical that rapidly developing countries will have the resources to adopt more sustainable energy policies. But Obama has had a glimmer of success in the global arena when it comes to climate change, in contrast to a divided Congress that routinely balked on climate goals.  

"Just as no country is immune from the impacts of climate change, no country can meet this challenge alone," the plan reads. "That is why it is imperative for the United States to couple action at home with leadership internationally."

President Obama offered a preview of his climate diplomacy earlier this month when he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders agreed to cut the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a major greenhouse-gas emitter used in household products. Environmentalists praised the agreement as a small but important and tangible goal shared between the world's two biggest polluters. 

There may be room for more agreements with China. Increasingly bad air in major Chinese cities have helped push some officials to take environmentalism a bit more seriously. China launched a pilot carbon emissions trading scheme earlier this month, a step towards controlling the greenhouse gases from the country's coal plants.

And although the country emits more carbon emissions than any other country, it also leads the world in renewable energy. China attracted $65 billion in clean energy investment in 2012, according to Pew Charitable trusts. That's 30 percent of all renewable investment in the world’s top 20 economies.

It's not enough. China's emissions increased by 300 million tons last year, according to the International Energy Agency. That's the lowest growth the country has seen in a decade but it more than offsets the progress made in the US, where a shaky economy and increased efficiency measures helped reduce emissions by 200 million metric tons.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.