But the complexity of these negotiations is hard to overestimate. For one thing, CO2 pollution is on some level a proxy for economic development, so agreeing to cut carbon emissions is tantamount to calling for limits on economic growth – a tall order on its own, but even more difficult in an atmosphere of deepening distrust. “It is very hard for either side to believe what the other is saying,” says Li Shuo. “There are many cultural barriers, and a long history of suspicion on both sides.”
On the final day of the conference, I took a walk around the grounds of the Diaoyutai State Guest House with Stern. He seemed tense, unsure any deal could be worked out, and not even clear what kind of goal the Chinese might be willing to commit to: “Will it be a carbon cap? A coal cap? A renewable-energy quota? We are not sure.”
The U.S. negotiators left China in a somber mood. During the first week of September, Obama sent President Xi a second letter. “It was a focused two-page letter on what could be delivered during the November APEC visit to Beijing, and it emphasized the climate joint announcement,” Podesta told me. But if Xi was serious about pursuing this deal, he didn’t show it by appearing at the U.N. Climate Summit in New York later that month. It was interpreted by some outsiders as a signal that the Chinese were not gearing up to make a serious commitment in Paris next year. Instead Xi sent Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who asked to meet with Obama in New York, which, Podesta said, was “unusual.”
At that meeting, Zhang told Obama that Xi had decided to do the deal – and that he wanted to announce it in Beijing around the time of the APEC summit. But many details were still unresolved – including the all-important question of how strong the targets would be. For an agreement to have any meaning, the U.S. and the Chinese had to commit to carbon reductions that were both significant and credible.
During the last week of October, Podesta and Stern traveled to Beijing to meet with Xie Zhenhau and others at the National Development and Reform Commission. It was there that the Chinese finally put numbers on the table. The key figure was their pledge to cap carbon emissions by 2030. While carbon restrictions that don’t go into effect for 16 years in the future may not sound significant, for a country as big and fast-growing as China, such a promise translates into huge reductions over time. (Climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert estimates that the cap, if extended out to 2060, would reduce China’s carbon pollution by 790 gigatons over business as usual.) U.S. negotiators were not overjoyed by China’s offer. “We wanted sooner than 2030, but they told us that 2030 had been cleared by the Standing Committee [i.e., the leaders of China’s Communist Party],” Podesta says.
For the U.S. team, the carbon-reduction targets that they put on the table were a mix of technical capacity and political aspiration. They had to be deep enough to be meaningful, but they also had to be politically plausible, given the fact that there is no chance of anything moving through Congress in the next two years and the unpredictability of the 2016 presidential election. The number they came up with, 26 to 28 percent by 2025, represents the greenhouse-gas reductions proposed under existing U.S. law, plus possible further reductions based on executive actions the president may take during the rest of his term. “It’s a serious commitment,” says Stern, essentially requiring the United States to double its rate of carbon reductions in the next decade. Twenty-eight percent, says Stern, puts the U.S. on a straight-line path to 80 percent reductions – from 1990 levels – by 2050, a broadly shared goal within the international climate community.
Still, these targets – which were voluntary, after all – were nowhere near enough to put the world on track to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which is the level scientists have identified as the threshold for dangerous climate change. But negotiators on both sides knew the deal could be nonetheless deeply significant, for it could shift the political calculus of international climate negotiation and virtually assure some kind of success in Paris next year, when an agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is supposed to be finalized.
“The question was, once we settled on the targets, was this deal significant enough for an announcement from the presidents of both countries?” says Podesta. Stern and Podesta weren’t sure. By China refusing to cap CO2 emissions until 2030, the U.S. team knew it would be open to the charge that we were giving China license to increase its carbon pollution for 16 years, while making costly promises to double our own reductions in the same period. But they saw a solution: The Chinese had mentioned they’d set an internal goal of generating 20 percent of their nation’s power from nonfossil fuel sources by 2030. (To meet the goal, the Chinese will essentially have to build the equivalent of the entire U.S. electrical system in the next 16 years – and do it with wind, solar and nukes.) U.S. negotiators pushed the Chinese to make this goal part of the agreement. But the Chinese were hesitant to go public with it. In addition, they wanted language in the agreement about different obligations between the developed and the developing world that the U.S. team couldn’t live with. For the second time in just a few months, Podesta and Stern left Beijing not sure they’d be able to make a deal at all.