As has been widely reported, on November 12 President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping released a joint announcement on climate change and clean energy cooperation. Beyond the announced greenhouse gas emission targets—for the U.S., to reduce emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025; for China, (i) to peak CO2 emissions by around 2030, with the intention to try to peak earlier, and (ii) to increase the non-fossil fuel share of primary energy consumption to around 20 percent by 2030—we note the following.
Differing reporting in the U.S. and China. The climate announcement received starkly different emphasis in U.S. and Chinese media. In the United States, the announcement was the lead or among the lead news stories in all major outlets we surveyed, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. In China, People’s Daily led with Obama’s and Xi’s talks generally, with the two parties reaffirming their goal, expressed at the Sunnylands Summit in 2013, of developing a “new pattern of major power relations” between the two counties—but placed news of the emissions announcement in a separate story on page 2. Jiefang Daily gave similar treatment to the announcement. Cankao News, which has a conservative reputation, likewise discussed the emissions targets on the second page of the lead story. And Beijing News, which is considered more liberal, mentioned the climate announcement in the lead’s subtitle, but only discussed its substance on the third page of coverage of the talks, on page 8 of Thursday’s edition. (Links to Chinese editions.)
The contrasting coverage reflects different economic and political contexts in the two nations. Beyond the substance of the agreement and fact that China is for the first time publicly stating a specific goal to peak emissions, the story’s heightened newsworthiness in the United States also likely reflects the American media’s sense of surprise, the back story of secret climate negotiations, economic tension between federal mandates and free markets, the chronically polarized politics of U.S. climate and energy policy, and the currently heightened executive vs. legislative branch posturing following last week’s elections. By contrast in China, secrecy and surprise of policy announcements are common, national economic planning with detailed, prescriptive goals is a foundation of the economy, and divided government and partisan politics are non-existent. To the extent that the announcement was important inside China, it seemed important for instrumental reasons—because, together with the broader dialogue of mutual cooperation, it demonstrated China’s stature in the bilateral relationship—not primarily because action on climate change is important for its own sake.
Implications for Paris 2015. The joint announcement has been described as an important break-through leading-up to next year’s global climate talks. With the world’s largest carbon emitters staking out goals to reduce carbon emissions, lesser emitters will find it more difficult to resist similar commitments. More significantly, the joint announcement has served to establish China as standard-setter, together with the United States. Its stature already established, China should be less inclined to oppose the United States in Paris for the sake of demonstrating its influence in multilateral negotiations.