US and China Formally Join the Paris Agreement

Presidents Obama and Xi announced that the U.S. and China have formally joined the Paris Agreement, moving the agreement within reach of entering into force this year. This announcement sends a strong signal that these two countries will continue to act aggressively on climate change through stronger domestic action in the coming years.

With the announcement, the two countries are: “on an unstoppable path to protect us from climate change, the central environmental challenge of our time,” as NRDC's President put it.

This announcement puts the Paris Agreement within reach of entering into force this yearmuch quicker than anyone anticipated when countries negotiated the final agreement last year. To date, fifty-eight countries that account for over sixty percent of the world’s emissions have publicly announced that they will formally join the Paris Agreement this year. When these countries finalize their domestic process—as the U.S. and China have just donethey will put the agreement over the threshold needed for the Paris Agreement to go into legal force (55 countries accounting for 55 percent of the world’s emissions).

Natural Resources Defense Council, 2016

These two countries are also signaling that they are prepared to continue their domestic climate action to help put the world on a much safer climate trajectory. These continued actions will build upon the significant progress that these two countries have already made. They now have a solid base to deepen their effort as envisioned in the Paris Agreement.

U.S. Climate Action

The United States has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2025. This is an ambitious—but achievable—goal based on existing policies and legal authority. Even greater reductions could be reached through additional policy measures, putting the United States on track to an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050.

At the end of his second term, most of the major initiatives in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan have been adopted into U.S. law. The Clean Power Plan established the first ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Despite the “pause” by the Supreme Court on this law, U.S. climate action continues including with huge transformations in how America produces and consumes electricity. Carbon emissions from the power sector dropped to a 22-year low in 2015, and that progress is expected to continue as states and power companies are moving forward on clean energy. Wind and solar capacity is projected to nearly double from 2015 levels by 2021. The U.S. has adopted a range of energy efficiency standards for appliances, equipment, and federal buildings. The transportation system is on a pathway to reduced carbon pollution through strong standards for passenger cars and light trucks through 2025. And the U.S. has acted on potent greenhouse gas emissions through standards to reduce methane pollution from new oil and gas operations and rules prohibiting certain uses of hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs).  

More climate action will be needed by the U.S. over the coming years, but these actions put the U.S. on a solid trajectory to meet its targets under the Paris Agreement. By formally joining the Paris Agreement the U.S. will help to protect Americans from the devastating climate impacts that will occur without U.S. leadership at home and abroad.

China Climate Action

China has committed under the Paris Agreement to peak its CO2 emissions no later than 2030, while making best efforts to peak earlier, and to increase its non-fossil energy to 20 percent of primary energy consumption by 2030. Since they first announced those targets in 2014 they have moved forward with policies and investments to meet these targets and there are indications that China may already be peaking its CO2 emissions from energy due to falling coal consumption, stronger environmental policies, economic restructuring away from heavy industry, and continued investments in wind, solar and nuclear power.

In particular, China’s wind and solar power installations have continued to grow at the fastest pace in the world, supported by a strong feed-in tariff program and, more recently, renewable energy quotas that require provinces to meet specific non-hydro renewable energy targets. These provincial quotas are intended to improve the utilization and integration of China’s wind and solar resources, which have faced high curtailment rates in recent years. China's wind power grew by an incredible 32.5 GW and its solar PV by 15 GW in 2015, to a total of 129 GW and 43 GW respectively, and are expected to increase to 250 GW for wind power and 150 GW for solar PV by 2020, an average yearly increase of 24.2 GW and 21.4 GW respectively. Through July, wind power has grown by another 19 GW and solar PV by 20 GW, making this year likely to be another record-breaking year. China is also pushing forward with efforts to put a price on carbon, with plans to establish a national carbon cap and trade program next year.

These efforts, combined with a slowdown and fundamental shift in the Chinese economy away from heavy industry towards services, has meant that China has appeared to have peaked its coal consumption in 2013, with a reduction in coal consumption (measured in physical tons) of 2.9 percent in 2014 and 3.7 percent in 2015. These trends are continuing this year: through the end of July, coal production has fallen by 10.1 percent year on year, while thermal power production fell by 1.9 percent year on year. Given that coal is the source of about 80 percent of China’s energy-related CO2 emissions, these coal trends indicate that China’s CO2 emissions will peak well before 2030, and could even be peaking nowan outcome that few expected was possible a couple of years ago.

U.S and China Action Sends a Powerful Signal to Other Countries

As the two biggest emitters in the world and the world’s two largest economies, these two countries play an outsized role in shaping the course of global efforts to address climate change. With their leadership in formally joining the Paris Agreement now signaling their commitment to even greater climate action in the coming years, the US and China are sending a powerful signal to other countries that the time for action is now.

This action shows to other countries and investors that the world’s two largest economies and biggest polluters are preparing to help lead the shift to a low-carbon economy. Whereas in the past the U.S. and China were perceived as dragging their feet on addressing global climate change, now these two countries are among the first to join the new framework for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. That is an important shift in the dynamic which reflects the reality that countries now realize that acting on climate change is in their own self-interest and that failing to act is no longer a smart choice.

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Senior Strategic Director, International Climate, International Program

Alvin Lin

Climate and Energy Policy Director, China Program

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