On November 11, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a breakthrough agreement between the two nations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and curb global warming. The two leaders, representing states that have not always seen eye-to-eye, stood side by side against a backdrop of the star-studded flags of both countries as they delivered the news of the deal.

The agreement between the planet’s two heaviest polluters takes serious steps towards combatting climate change. The United States will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China will reach a peak of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and will increase the share of non-fossil fuel sources in its energy infrastructure to 20 percent. In light of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, these measures may seem like too little too late, and if no further action is taken, they most certainly are. However, the full significance of this agreement comes not from the content, but from the willingness of both the United States and China to work together to tackle the serious threat of climate change.

This is no small achievement. The Kyoto Protocol, drafted in 1997, created an international coalition of countries committed to lowering emissions. While many industrialized countries, including most of Europe, signed the protocol, the world’s largest producers of emissions did not. China, classified as a developing nation, was exempted from the agreement. The United States decided not to ratify. Without the participation of the two heaviest polluters, the Kyoto Protocol lacked teeth, and it ultimately has had limited impact on a global scale. Now, with the recent agreement, both China and the United States publicly recognize the danger of climate change and show a desire to mitigate damage. This change in official stance could pave the way to a new international protocol with substance and support.

To be truly effective, a new protocol would have to slash emissions more rapidly and drastically than the current U.S.-China agreement. Additionally, it would need signatory nations to allocate copious funding for research and development of green technologies, and it would need to develop clear channels between research institutions worldwide in order to cultivate innovation and collaboration. With China and the United States now committing to international cooperation, there could be powerful support for such a protocol.

The United Nations would be the forum in which this measure could be drafted and implemented. Four out of five permanent Security Council members—the United States, China, the United Kingdom and France—now have shown a serious desire to work internationally to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge then becomes convincing Russia, an exporter of fossil fuels, to join in drafting and enforcing a new protocol.

Russia will be severely impacted by rising global temperatures. With climate change will come a vast loss in the biodiversity and complexity of Russian ecosystems and considerable damage to Russian agriculture and forestry. To persuade Russia to support a new protocol, other Security Council nations will need to underline these problems and offer Russia economic incentives. This could include easier pathways for Russians to research green technologies at Western institutions and special privileges for Russian researchers to return these technologies to Russia for commercialization. Convincing Russia to participate in a new protocol may even involve compromise over current political issues in Eastern Europe. As painful as this would be, the addition of Russia to a climate change agreement would ensure that a new protocol would have the power of the Security Council behind it. A united Security Council could impose strict economic sanctions on nations that do not make significant efforts to reduce emissions.

While creating a strong new agreement will involve tough concessions to signing parties, significantly mitigating the perilous effects of climate change over the next century requires international cooperation. The first steps towards serious emissions reduction have been taken with the signing of a deal between China and the United States. Now it is up to world powers to pursue further action by creating a robust protocol that confronts climate change head on.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Department of State 

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