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July 14, 2013 4:49 pm
The tide may finally be turning in the battle against climate change. Last week the US and China signed a deal to cut carbon emissions from heavy-duty vehicles and coal-fired power plants. Barely a month before, the world’s two biggest emitters agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, the greenhouse gases even more toxic to the earth’s atmosphere than carbon.
Attempts to set a framework to combat climate change have for years been sabotaged by rivalry between the developed and developing worlds. The Kyoto protocol exempted the latter’s biggest polluters, China and India. US lawmakers never ratified a treaty that they argued imposed unfair burdens on American business. Four years ago the Copenhagen summit ended with little more than fine words.
The biggest challenge to a global agreement has been to reconcile questions of national sovereignty with the urgency of the need to cut emissions. Bilateral deals being struck between Washington and Beijing suggest a way forward.
President Barack Obama, in his second and last term as US president, is showing renewed appetite to tackle global warming. He plans to circumvent an obstructive congress by using regulation to clamp down on emissions at existing and new coal-fired power plants. In China, where smog levels in certain areas are reducing life expectancy, a new leadership knows it must address the toxic side-effects of industrialisation if it is to maintain credibility with its citizens.
If global targets are to be set, each country has to know they can be achieved. More important, there has to be political commitment. This may be easier to achieve if the world’s biggest polluters hammer out deals, which can form the basis of a global framework.
Critics will complain these accords are non-binding. The terms can be ignored with little fear of diplomatic or political consequence. Yet effective binding agreements have proved elusive. In the meantime, carbon dioxide concentrations have reached their highest levels in millions of years.
There will be setbacks. Mr Obama’s plans to toughen regulation will be challenged in the courts. But agreement between China and the US will pressurise other big emitters to follow suit.
The next major summit on climate change is in Paris in 2015. If that gathering is not to collapse as Copenhagen did in 2009, Beijing and the US should ensure these deals are both implemented and be used as the first bricks of a lasting, binding agreement.
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