When President Obama announced the most far-reaching effort by any US President to finally take climate change seriously, the predictable lament of naysayers was soon heard:
"China's just going to keep on polluting. Why the heck should we ruin our economy for nought?"
Not less than a day later, however, China announced its own first. As reported over at Business Green, Chinese officials are pledging to implement an absolute cap on carbon emissions for the first time ever:
China set its first ever carbon targets in 2009, in the run-up to a major UN climate talks summit in Copenhagen, attended by Obama, Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and other world leaders. The previous target was for a cut of emissions relative to its economic growth, by 40-45 per cent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels, meaning absolute carbon emissions could still increase as China's economy grew.
But the new cap will be the first time that the country, which has been plagued by pollution problems in large part due to the burning of carbon-intensive coal, has promised to limit absolute emissions. Officials have not yet put a figure on what level the cap will be.
Could the timing possibly be related? It's hard to imagine that there haven't been back door discussions going on. The two super powers appear to be sending signals to the rest of the world in the run up to new climate talks in Paris next year. With India also making huge moves on the clean energy front, could we finally have something to cheer for in terms of international action?
Let's not get carried away, of course. China has not yet committed to what level its absolute cap will be set at, and it looks likely that the goal will allow Chinese emissions to grow for at least a decade to come. Obama's plan too, while being better than anything that has come before it, is merely a step in the direction of the gigantic changes we really need to make.
But that may not matter.
As I argued yesterday, President Obama's plan is one more data point suggesting which way the energy markets are going to have to go. The same goes for China's plan too. With growing signs that China's pollution may be hindering, not helping, its economy, and with mainstream banks getting increasingly leery of fossil fuel industries, disruptive change may eventually make the targets we set today look embarrassingly unambitious.