The World

The Upside of the Airpocalypse

Buildings are shrouded in smog on Dec. 8, 2013, in Lianyungang, China. 

Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

For an administration that doesn’t have a lot of recent foreign policy wins to point to, the climate accord between the United States and China could be a very big one. In this case, the administration’s strategy of seeking international diplomatic opportunities that don’t require buy-in from Congress seems to have worked out quite well for President Obama, though Republicans can still undermine the deal by scuttling America’s own emissions reduction policies. But no matter the obstacles down the road, between this historic deal and the reduction targets agreed to by the EU last month, it’s been a rare productive couple of weeks for climate diplomacy.

Under the Beijing deal, the U.S. promises to emit 26 to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005, double the previously pledged pace of reductions. More importantly, China has promised to reduce its carbon emissions after 2030.

This might seem disappointing at first—the world’s largest emitter gets to keep upping the pollution ante for 15 more years, and skeptics of the agreement point out that China was already on the path to doing this anyway—but this is the first time China has agreed to any absolute reduction in emissions. Beijing, which maintains that major emitters have “common but differentiated responsibilities” for addressing global warming due to their levels of economic development and historic pollution levels, has until now only agreed to limit its “carbon intensity”—the amount it emits per unit of GDP growth.

This accord, along with a less heralded bilateral agreement last year to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, the potent greenhouse gases used in many refrigerators and air conditioners, shows that the two countries that account for a third of global emissions have at last found some common ground. Given that the conventional wisdom has always been that China would never sacrifice economic growth for the environment, the pledge is a signal to other developing countries that nobody should get a pass when it comes to reducing emissions. It will be interesting, in particular, to watch the response from India’s Narendra Modi, whose government talks a big game on renewable energy but has been skeptical about reduction targets.

Chinese officials have been dropping hints that they were considering an announcement like this for some time. China has also quietly been taking steps to address its coal consumption, a factor that Greenpeace calls the “single most significant determinant for the future of the world’s climate.” Not so long ago, China was adding one or two coal plants to its grid every week, and its increased coal burning accounted for nearly half of global CO2 emissions growth between 2002 and 2012.

But Chinese coal use may have actually dropped this year, and a number of regions have announced ambitious coal reduction targets. The city of Beijing plans to be entirely coal-free by 2020. An uncharacteristically upbeat Greenpeace analysis from last spring suggested that the current coal reduction targets would bring “China’s projected CO2 emissions in 2020 close to a trajectory that the International Energy Agency says would be in line with the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.” (To sound a more pessimistic note, making that a reality would require other emitters to accomplish their reduction goals, which is an awfully big if.)

What spurred China to kick its coal habit? There are a number of factors, from cheap natural gas to falling prices for alternative energy sources. In addition to being Earth’s biggest polluter, China invests more in green energy than any country in the world. Under this new agreement, it has pledged that renewables will account for 20 percent of its energy production by 2030. The Chinese government also wants to reduce the country’s reliance on carbon-intensive heavy industry for its future economic growth.

But a big factor that can’t be ignored is pollution, particularly the infamous blankets of smog that regularly waft over Chinese cities. Air pollution and emissions aren’t the same thing, and there are even fears that some of the country’s smog reduction efforts may increase emissions. There is, though, a common primary culprit behind China’s air pollution and emissions problems: coal. By cutting down on coal consumption, the country will take a major step toward solving both problems at once.

As I wrote last year, air pollution differs from other political issues in China in that it’s essentially impossible for the government to hide it. It’s literally right in citizens’ faces. As the Greenpeace report puts it, air pollution was once “considered by most urban Chinese as an inevitable side effect of economic growth. … But in October 2011 an air pollution episode or ‘haze’ which lasted for weeks prompted Web commentators to question official air quality data for the first time.” Shortly thereafter, the government agreed to publish official measurements of particle pollution and set targets for reducing it.

The next major event was Beijing’s January 2013 “airpocalypse,” a period of pollution more than 40 times what the World Health Organization considers safe. The Economist has called the event a national environmental tipping point on par with Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969. The Environmental Protection Agency was established the next year. The magazine wrote:

The “airpocalypse” injected a new urgency into local debate about the environment—and produced a green-policy frenzy a few months later. In three weeks from the middle of June, the government unveiled a series of reforms to restrict air pollution. It started the country’s first carbon market, made prosecuting environmental crimes easier, and made local officials more accountable for air-quality problems in their areas. It also said China—meaning companies as well as government—would spend $275 billion over the next five years cleaning up the air.

China released its air pollution action plan in September 2013. The airpocalypse, in short, likely spurred Chinese leaders to start thinking pollution as a threat to growth rather than an unfortunate byproduct of it.

We’re a long way from out of the woods on global warming, and have probably waited too long to avert many of its catastrophic effects. But harm reduction is still worthwhile, and it’s in the world’s best interest for the planet’s largest emitter to take this issue seriously. If the airpocalypse was the moment China got religion on coal and emissions, it may turn out to be one of the best things to ever happen in the fight against climate change.