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Turning point? U.S. and China announce major actions on global warming

Could 2014 be a turning point for efforts to slash global greenhouse gas emissions? Maybe: in less than 24 hours the world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide announced plans to finally rein-in the gas most responsible for global warming.

Yesterday, the Obama Administration announced long-awaited rules by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent by 2030, based on 2005 levels. Less than 24 hours later, China announced it would set an absolute cap on its own CO2 emissions, which are the largest in the world, by 2016.

The new EPA rules, which were rolled out to much fanfare yesterday, allow each of America’s 50 states to choose the best way to tackle their own emissions, while setting distinct targets for each state. But cumulatively, this would amount to cutting CO2 emissions by nearly a third from 2005 levels. Environmentalists largely applauded the new rules.

Former Vice President, Al Gore, called the move “the most important step taken to combat the climate crisis in our country’s history,” adding, “We simply cannot continue to use the atmosphere as an open sewer for dirty and dangerous global warming pollution that endangers our health and makes storms, floods, mudslides and droughts much more dangerous and threatening–not only in the future, but here and now.”

However, some argued the president wasn’t going far enough.

Coal mine in Wyoming. Burning coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source. Photo by: the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Coal mine in Wyoming. Burning coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source. Photo by: the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

“President Obama’s draft power plant plan should be strengthened to achieve the global pollution cuts scientists recommend,” said Kevin Bundy with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “He also has to quit stalling on reducing emissions from other sectors such as air travel and the oil and gas industry. If we keep kicking the can down the road, the cost and difficulty of averting catastrophe will skyrocket.”

While the U.S. target represents a significant cut from 2005 levels, it’s a much smaller cut when looking at 1990 levels: just under eight percent. Most international negotiations have used 1990 as the benchmark year for greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite its shortcomings, the announcement by the EPA are the first time in the country’s history to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from its largest source, power plants. Moreover, experts say the new target could help push global negotiations on climate change forward.

This appeared to come true less than a day later with China’s announcement. Although sparse in details, China has affirmed for the first time that it will set a total cap on its own carbon emissions. The country says it doesn’t expect its emissions to peak until 2030, but setting a cap in the next two years will allow the international community to gauge the level of China’s commitment on combatting global warming.

“The key point will be where (the cap) is set,” a spokesman for EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard told Reuters. “If ambitious and announced well in advance of Paris, it could be a game changer.”

The world’s governments have pledged to come up with a new climate agreement at a summit in Paris in 2015.

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