Smoke Screen

11.12.14 5:52 PM ET

The U.S.-China Climate Deal Is Mostly Hot Air

The Obama administration may be crowing about its “historic” emissions agreement. But China and the U.S. are already on track to meet these targets.

The United States and China announced new greenhouse emission targets late Tuesday night. Secretary of State John Kerry praised it as an agreement of “great consequence,” while the White House called it an “ambitious” target.

Don’t buy the hype. The announcement is largely a restatement of existing American and Chinese carbon emission trajectories, topped with a new red ribbon.

Through its standards on automobile efficiency, and soon-to-be finalized EPA regulations on power plants, the Obama administration has already set the United States on a path to cutting greenhouse gases by between 26 percent and 28 percent by 2025.

“The commitment on the U.S. side is a summation of a variety of commitments that have already been made,” Ethan Zindler, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told The Daily Beast. “The president can’t go out and promise new stuff—not even with this Congress, let alone the Congress he’s going to have next year.”

Once the EPA regulations on emissions at American power plants are finalized next year, Zindler said, the United States should already be on track to meet this goal.

As for China’s pledge to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, well, it was already on that path. 2030 is the target for when the country’s urbanization, population growth and carbon emissions peak.

The U.S.-China agreement on carbon emissions may not be especially ambitions, but this does not mean that it is without symbolic consequence.

“What’s more meaningful is leaders putting their reputations and political weight behind ambitious emissions reduction targets,” Andrew Eil, a former State Department climate change program coordinator, told The Daily Beast. “The fact that Xi and Obama both put a lot on the line to demonstrate that climate is a big priority is very noteworthy… Most importantly, both for the U.S. and China, it’s a commitment to emissions reduction, full stop, that has not been made before.”

And there remains practical work to be done, Eil said. The EPA regulations scheduled to be finalized next year still needs to be put in the books, and implemented by the states.

“In both cases, hitting these targets will require significant action beyond the policies now on the books. Yes, there’s a proposal out there by EPA, but you can’t take for granted that these get implemented in time to hit these targets by 2025,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a nonpartisan organization focused on climate change and energy policy.

Key American climate change groups expressed hopefulness at the agreement, but political realities have tempered the euphoria somewhat.

“We are confident that both [the United States and China] can achieve even greater reductions,” Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement, while simultaneously calling the commitment a “critical step.”

Going beyond the agreement outlined between China and the United States, however, would require Congressional action. Don’t expect this Congress to acquiesce silently to that request.

Just hours after the announcement in Beijing, Republican senators began to outline just how much they disdained the new agreement. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, soon to be Majority Leader, called the goals an “unrealistic plan, that the president would dump on his successor.”

And Sen. Jim Inhofe, soon to be chair of the committee which oversees American environmental policy, tacked on his suspicion that China will not hold up its end of the deal: “China builds a coal-fired power plant every 10 days, is the largest importer of coal in the world, and has no known reserves of natural gas,” he said in a statement. “This deal is a non-binding charade."

— with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman