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Blue skies over Beijing greeted President Obama and other foreign diplomats as they visited China recently. China worked hard to clean up its notoriously smoggy air in order to impress. Residents of Beijing were able to see the true color of the sky for the first time in years. They were also able to take a deep breath without choking on the pollution.
Beijing’s blue sky was only temporary. The government pulled out all the stops to clear the skies for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leader’s Week 2014 which was hosted by China Nov. 5 – 11. The Chinese government was not 100 percent successful in cleaning the air. In fact, data that showed air quality still hovered at dangerous levels was suppressed by authorities. But citizens and diplomats were treated to a rare glimpse of blue midweek.
Thousands of factories were closed down, cars were ordered off the roads, and residents were asked to leave the city. The government even enacted a six day holiday to keep traffic and energy use down. Traffic congestion was decreased 70 percent by strict limits on driving; odd numbered license plates drove one day, even numbered the next. Government offices and schools were closed. More than 140 of the top polluters in Beijing were forced to shut down. By the time President Obama arrived, the sky over Beijing was blue – dubbed APEC blue in a nod to the drastic and temporary measures taken to achieve clear air.
The APEC blue skies garnered some resentment from the Chinese people. The government’s endeavor proved that it is possible to clear the air, but some say they feel that people’s lives are not worth the cost or effort necessary for lasting change. As soon as APEC ends, the hazy soup hanging over the city will return, the sky will disappear, and protective face-masks will be donned.
However, on Nov. 12, President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping surprised the world by announcing that the United States and China had reached an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions. China has recently surpassed the U.S. as the largest producer of greenhouses gases, mostly due to its reliance on coal. Together, the two countries account for 40 percent of the carbon pumped into the atmosphere. Neither nation is going to stop using coal, oil or natural gas, but they have made a pact to reduce the amount of carbon emissions.
Obama called the pact an ambitious but achievable goal. By 2025, the U.S. will cut carbon dioxide and other gas emissions by 25 percent. For the first time, Beijing has agreed to cap carbon emissions. Their plan is to reduce pollution by 2030. Furthermore, there is talk that China may put a cap on burning coal. Currently, 70 percent of Beijing’s factories are powered by coal. Burning coal puts more CO2 and particulate matter into the air than any other fuel source.
The agreement is a huge step for China which has heretofore resisted pollution regulations as restrictive to business. It also puts the United States at the forefront of greenhouse gas reductions and positions the nation as a leader to impact climate change. The two nations have individual action goals, but both recognize greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels is an issue that needs to be addressed sooner than later.
Although the largest polluter, China is also the world leader in the growth of nuclear power and renewable energy sources. It has added 12 gigawatts of solar power and the Three Gorges Dam pumps out 22 gigawatts of energy each year. By 2030, China expects to produce 20 percent of its power through clean energy sources, which is equivalent to all the energy produced in the U.S. annually.
The climate change agreement has been lauded by environmentalists and world leaders such as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. On the other hand, the U.N.’s head of climate science warned that it will not be enough to avoid the negative effects of anthropomorphic global warming. Of course, conservative politicians in the U.S., led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, employed the typical Republican tirade against solving carbon problems, stating that curbing emissions will increase energy prices and cost jobs.
There is still much on which China and the U.S. do not agree. American would like China to improve its record on human rights, stop being the aggressor in the South China Sea, and have more open elections such as that called for by the protestors in Hong Kong. Given their many disagreements, it is remarkable that the two nations are working together to combat air pollution.
The pact between the two largest economies sets the stage for a global deal to be reached at the Paris Climate Change Convention in 2015. President Obama sees climate change as one of the biggest challenges facing the world. President Xi finally sees the health of the people and the sustainability of resources is important to the growth of China. In the future, blue skies over Beijing may be a common sight.
By: Rebecca Savastio