Top presidential aide, John Podesta, slipped off to Beijing last month to secretly negotiate the US-China climate agreement announced this week. One might say, borrowing from Naomi Klein, that "this changes everything." Podesta simply notes, "It's a big deal."
The climate strategy based on diplomacy with China has been pursued by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, California Governor Jerry Brown and environmental groups including NRDC, which has a staff of thirty there. The new announcement opens the path for a growing Green Bloc of regions building clean energy economies while waiting and wondering about the commitments of the greatest power emitters. Between them, China and the US are responsible for 40 percent of carbon emissions.
Regional grass-roots strategies have been the catalysts. In China, the angry residents of cities like Beijing are challenging the state over deadly smog. In the US, environmentalists and social justice activists have built constituencies in many states, led by California. Three Chinese provinces already are working on collaborative clean energy programs with California.
The US-China agreement overnight supercharges the quest for a global agreement by 2015 in Paris. It will raise expectations for the drafting meeting scheduled to begin in Lima December 1. It breathes new life into California's effort to find partners. California is being urged by environmentalists to at least double its pace on the road to a 100 percent renewable energy economy by mid-century.
The US will commit to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, doubling the pace compared to 2005-2020.
Of course there are worries. The pace of change is never enough. China's plan includes a dangerous dependency on nuclear power. The opposition, the corporate fossil fuel industry here and the state fossil fuel industry there, will fight back, strengthened by the new Republican leadership in Washington.
But Obama now has the upper hand in his fight to implement federal regulations against coal-fired power plants. Now when Republicans wage their war against environmental regulations, they will be taking a stand against a US-China agreement that most Americans and many powers around the world will consider historic and necessary. If the Republicans bottle up Obama’s domestic regulations, a key foundation of the US-China diplomacy is undermined and China could walk away.
The US business community might shift its alignment as well. For years they have argued that American climate regulations will give a competitive advantage to China. With both countries on the same path, the corporate argument is neutralized. More than that, huge foreign investment opportunities will loom as China tries to build 1,000 gigawatts of renewable energy (including nuclear) by 2030. That's the same as the total electricity generating capacity of the entire US, according to John Kerry's announcement.
Two decades of US-China antagonism over climate diplomacy are over. The race to de-carbonize the global economy is underway.