China and the United States announce climate and energy deal

The most significant legacy of U.S. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan may not be in what the program accomplishes in the United States, given delayed timelines for implementation which undermine the plan’s ambition. Instead, it may be the influence that the Clean Power Plan has on China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, as well as on global climate talks.

The Clean Power Plan was referenced significantly in a joint statement by U.S. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, during which China committed to a number of significant actions regarding greenhouse gases and energy, with notable actions in both the transportation and electricity sectors.

Chiefly, the statement indicates that China will give grid priority to low-carbon energy sources through a “green dispatch” system. The statement mentions renewable energy, but does not state whether or not nuclear power will also be included.

China also plans to implement a national carbon trading system in 2017, covering electricity, steel, cement and “other key industrial sectors”. This builds on the nation’s seven existing regional carbon trading systems, and in the statement the use of carbon emissions standards for U.S. states as a default in the Clean Power Plan was also referenced.

A number of other measures not specific to the power sector were announced, including heavy vehicle efficiency standards for China to match U.S. standards. Both nations have pledged methane and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) reduction plans, as well as enhanced building efficiency mandates.

Additionally, there is language which seem to address concerns that what is planned is actually implemented, which is particularly timely given the recent scandal over Volkswagen’s cheating on emissions reporting. The announcement references an “enhanced transparency system”.

The two presidents say that they are building on a joint announcement from last November, and are working towards the “low-carbon transformation of the global economy”. But more than the past, they appear to be influenced by the near future, with a prominent reference for a “common vision for a new global climate agreement” to be concluded in Paris.

However, in the United States it is not the federal government which is leading the transformation of the electricity sector, but California and other forward-thinking states, many of which are well ahead of Clean Power Plan goals. Earlier this year Hawaii pledged to get 100% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2045, and a few weeks ago California’s legislature approved a mandate for the state to get 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030.

Additionally, California Governor Jerry Brown is moving buildings in the state capitol to 100% renewable energy.