World & Nation

Story So Far: U.S.-China climate change agreement: What you need to know

U.S.-China greenhouse gas agreement
The U.S. and China have announced new targets on greenhouse gas emissions. Above, a hazy road in Beijing in January.
(Rolex dela Pena / European Pressphoto Agency)

Wednesday’s agreement between the United States and China on cutting greenhouse gas emissions could have lasting implications for the entire world. Here are some important things to know. 

What are greenhouse gas emissions?

These gases come from primarily from electricity production and transportation but also from agriculture, commercial businesses and residences. In the United States, the burning of coal and natural gas for electricity production contributes to the majority of greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere, which in turn contributes to climate change. Thirty-two percent of 2012 greenhouse gas emissions came from electricity production and 28% from transportation such as cars, buses and trains, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Who creates the most greenhouses gases?


The United States and China are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world and account for more than a third of global greenhouse gases, according to the EPA. Some experts on climate change argue that such an agreement will set a tone for the rest of the world. 

What is the agreement between the United States and China?

President Obama created a new target to cut greenhouse gas emissions at least 26% from 2005 levels by 2025, a move that would double the country’s current pace of reduction. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping has agreed that China will aim to make its carbon emissions peak by 2030 and to get 20% of its energy from zero-carbon-emission sources, such as wind and solar.

Will the deal put the planet on track to avoid the worst consequences of global warming?


Not by itself. Other big emitters, most notably India and Russia, would have to make similarly ambitious cuts.

Will this agreement hold up?

It’s hard to tell. The agreement comes after several months of dialogue between the countries despite a tense relationship that stems from spying and an elevated level of distrust between Beijing and Washington. Moreover, Obama’s term as president ends in 2016, and any successor could change the course of the United States.

How can the U.S. accomplish its goal?

Obama can either propose legislation or use executive powers to set the U.S. on a path toward meeting the emissions goal. The White House has not indicated which route or routes it will take.

What are environmental groups saying?

“These landmark commitments to curtail carbon pollution are a necessary, critical step forward in the global fight against climate change. We look forward to working with both governments to strengthen their efforts — because we are confident that both can achieve even greater reductions.” — Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council

“Together these announcements send a clear signal to the private sector and the financial markets on where global policy is now heading. Thus these announcements have the potential to unleash and accelerate the kinds of entrepreneurship and innovation needed to propel all economies towards ever greater levels of ambition — if not significantly exceeding their ambitions — en route to a low-carbon, resilient world over coming years and decades.” — Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


What are U.S. politicians saying?

The debate over causes for climate change falls largely along party lines, and Republicans in Congress quickly vowed to undermine the deal. Here’s what some politicians told the Los Angeles Times the day the pact was announced:

“History may look back and say this was the turning point on climate.” — Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), a ranking member of the House Energy Committee

“The agreement requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years while these carbon emissions regulations are creating havoc on my state and other states around the country. The president continues to send signals that he has no intention of moving towards the middle.” — Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), incoming Senate majority leader

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