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Why the U.S.-China climate deal isn’t crazy ambitious

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The agreement between President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, committing both countries to major reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions in the next 10 years, has been widely hailed as a political and diplomatic breakthrough. Until now, one big point of contention in debates about reducing U.S. emissions has been, “What’s the point? China’s the biggest emitter now. Without their participation, world emissions barely budge.”

Less discussed has been the size of the undertaking itself. President Obama is committing the U.S. to dialing back emissions to less than 75 percent of 2005 levels. That sounds tough. 

But here’s the secret: Essentially, these are reductions the Obama administration has already committed to. 

“If you’re in the clean-energy industry in the U.S., and you’ve been keeping up on these developments already, then this announcement probably doesn’t represent a major game-change for you,” says Ethan Zindler, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

If you’re not in the clean-energy industry, you may wonder what developments Zindler is talking about. One should be familiar: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, proposed in June, is designed to decrease emissions from existing power plants. That’s big.

A lesser-known rule — still getting finalized — would strictly limit emissions from any new power plants. Old-style coal plants, the biggest emitters — effectively, new ones would be forbidden.

Then there’s a rule that’s already in force: fuel-efficiency standards for cars.  “The average car that’s sold this month is about 25 percent more fuel-efficient than the one that was sold about five years ago,” Zindler says.

The power-plant rules are still proposals, and a new president could eventually undo them. But this agreement makes the whole framework a little stronger.

Any time two major leaders reach an agreement, it has some level of authority to it,” says Dan Bakal, director of the electric-power program at the nonprofit group CERES.

Finally, a diplomatic partnership opens the door wider to cooperating on the how of reducing emissions.

There will continue to be really advanced technologies that we will cooperate on together,” says Susan Tierney, an energy consultant with The Analysis Group. “We need to figure out how to deal with the carbon emissions associated with coal.”

Right now, technology for cleaning up emissions from coal generators is experimental and costly. Tierney thinks teaming up with China could help.

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