U.S.-China deal will avert 640 billion tons of CO2 pollution

ShutterstockMario Tarello

This article first appeared at Climate Interactive.

Today the world’s attention is turning to the announcement of new climate commitments by the U.S. and China. Using our global climate simulation C-ROADS, we have calculated the impact of the new commitments on the climate.

We estimate that the new commitments by the U.S. and China would, if fully implemented, keep 640 gigatons of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere.

The total of 640 gigatons is greater than all global fossil fuel emissions from 1990-2013.

And, as a thought experiment, if all developing countries were to cap emissions in 2030 consistent with China’s proposal and all developed countries were to take the same reduction action as the U.S., then 2,500 gigatons of CO2 would not be emitted into the atmosphere.

Here are the specific scenarios we compared, shown in the graph:

1. Business as Usual (RCP 8.5): A high-growth “business as usual” scenario created for the latest IPCC report.

2. Previous U.S., EU Pledges. U.S. and EU Copenhagen Commitment plus recent EU commitment: A scenario in which the U.S. and EU meets their Copenhagen commitments and the EU meets its recent additional commitment (40 percent below 1990 by 2030) and the rest of the world follows the RCP 8.5 scenario.

3. Previous pledges plus new U.S.-China Commitment. U.S. and EU Copenhagen Commitment plus recent EU plus new U.S. and China commitment: A scenario that includes all the assumptions of No. 2, plus the U.S. and China meet the commitments announced Nov. 11, 2014 (China peaking CO2 emissions in 2030 and U.S. reaching 27 percent below 2005 levels by 2025).

4. Other countries follow U.S., China lead: A scenario in which all developed countries (as defined in C-ROADS simulation documentation, and not including the EU, which follows its new pledge) reduce emissions 27 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and all developing countries (similarly defined) peak emissions by 2030.

Anticipated temperature decreases would be 0.19 degrees Celsius from the new U.S. and China commitments and 0.81 degrees Celsius if the other countries followed. Reasons for the relatively modest contributions include:

1. No additional commitments nor reductions post 2030
2. No inclusion in our calculations of LULUCF CO2 emissions nor other gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and the F-gases

In addition to their impact on tons of emissions this century, the new commitments have other important impacts.

These new commitments could enable more ambitious commitments by other parties

Analysis from the world’s top energy and climate experts has shown again and again that transitioning to clean energy and making large reductions in future greenhouse gas emissions is technically feasible. (See for example: the IPCC [PDF], the International Energy Agency  and UNEP [PDF]). Hundreds of people around the world have discovered this fact for themselves using Climate Interactive’s World Energy Exercise. To date, capturing this potential has been limited by the political will of the world’s nations to take decisive action. While the new commitments do not, on their own, secure a livable climate for future generations, they could encourage more ambition in other countries. If this happens, the impacts of these new commitments could reach far beyond 640 gigatons of direct emissions reductions.

These new commitments will drive prices of renewables and efficiency downward for everyone

To achieve their pledges, the economies of China and the U.S. will have to make large investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Such investments pay a double dividend — not only do they reduce emissions, but they also make it more feasible for others to reduce emissions in the future. For example, as more units of photovoltaic energy or more wind turbines are manufactured and installed, the process becomes cheaper, putting wind and solar within reach for more households and businesses. And, in today’s interconnected global economy, progress in these large economies will diffuse throughout the world.

Immediate and local benefits

Beyond the long-term and global benefits to the climate, the citizens of China and the U.S. will experience some immediate local benefits from the actions that will be taken to meet the new climate commitments. Fewer people will die or be injured in the process of extracting, refining and transporting fossil fuels, and less ancillary pollution of water and ecosystems will occur. The air of cities and around power plants will be cleaner, and respiratory aliments and associated health care and productivity costs will decline. Recent studies (for example, a global study by the World Bank and ClimateWorks and a U.S. study by the Harvard School of Public Health) have documented the fact that serious action on climate change could save billions of dollars and millions of lives around the world.

Important caveats:

In this analysis, in order to quickly offer some sense of perspective about the importance of the new climate commitments, our team had to simplify the complicated global political economic and energy system to create some useful scenarios.

Here are a few simplifications we made:

1. Future emissions are held constant. For each commitment we assumed there would be no further policy change after the target year. For example, we held China’s emissions constant at 2030 levels. Were China to reduce emissions after 2030, this would result in even more avoided emissions.

2. We don’t account for some interconnections in the climate energy system. For example, reductions in emissions likely will mean reductions in aerosols that are also products of burning fossil fuels, and some of these emissions have a cooling effect on the climate.

3. We didn’t include any changes in non-CO2 greenhouse gases or land-use emissions, yet those changes most likely would come along with serious commitments to act on climate.

4 .In the "all follow" scenario we didn’t include the Copenhagen pledges of parties other than the U.S. and EU. Because of this simplification the "all follow" scenario counts some amount of reductions that already have been pledged, making this estimate a slight over-counting.