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China’s Carbon-Limit Pledge With Obama Won’t Go Far on Capitol Hill

President Barack Obama’s climate agenda got a big public relations boost on Sept. 25, with the announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping, at their state meeting in Washington, D.C., that he would impose a first-ever national cap-and-trade regime on key industrial sectors to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the fact China is turning to cap and trade — something Obama failed to win from the Democratic-controlled Congress in his first term — won’t soon revive the concept on Capitol Hill in any U.S. counterpart program.

It has been a non-starter since moderates in his own party allied with Republicans to sink Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal in 2010 after getting through the House with nearly unanimous opposition by Republicans, who derided it as a national energy tax.

Obama nonetheless hailed the move by Xi as a key advance toward a successful global climate accord in Paris in December. The scheme is intended to back up Xi’s goal of hitting a peak in China’s emissions no later than 2030, something Obama won last year while pledging to reduce U.S. emissions by more than a quarter by 2025.

Even if an eventual Paris accord is based on voluntary commitments, such an outcome would seem to vindicate Obama’s push throughout his presidency to overcome the stalemate between industrialized and developing nations over actions to keep global temperature increases in check.

Poor Countries

At a Rose Garden event with Xi, Obama said the commitment by China to impose the system and bankroll climate adaptation projects in poor countries should prod other developing nations to also limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

“When the world’s two largest economies, energy consumers and carbon emitters come together like this, then there’s no reason for other countries, whether developed or developing, to not do so as well,” Obama said. “This is another major step towards the global agreement the world needs to reach in two months’ time.”

Republicans remain skeptical, if not outright dismissive, of any climate actions by China, which they regard as a global competitor. They see Xi’s pledge as a way to give it a manufacturing advantage against the U.S. in the coming years.

“Our interest is in strengthening our economy to help American families prosper; only with a strong economy can we meet future challenges,” Rep. Pete Olson, the vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s Energy and Power Subcommittee, said following the announcement.

“China may be making its own promises, but it is not clear what those promises will mean in practice or if China will even keep them,” the Texas Republican added.

Environmental groups hope China’s pledge will at least prompt a climate accord, and possibly undercut Republican opposition to climate action, but for now they are making a policy argument and not predicting a sea change on Capitol Hill — even after Pope Francis challenged U.S. lawmakers to take action on climate change during his historic address to a joint meeting of Congress.

“I want to emphasize this announcement is a big deal,” Eric Pooley, a senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, said on a call with reporters. “The world’s two largest emitters of climate pollution are now encouraging each other to make ambitious steps to reduce emissions, and the era when each would blame the other for inaction is gone. Also gone is the argument that the U.S. can’t cut carbon emissions because our biggest competitor is refusing to do so.”

No Appetite

Senate Democrats are showing no appetite for another fight over carbon emissions limits. They unveiled their own climate and energy legislation recently that made no mention of cap-and-trade or any other mechanism to put a price on carbon, such as a tax, though they included language to set a nonbinding goal of reducing U.S. emissions 2 percent per year for 10 years.

Even then, they did not attract the support of moderate Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota or Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who have argued for continued use of coal though advances in carbon-capture technology.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she and 27 co-sponsors of the bill focused on proposals that could win bipartisan support, such as encouraging renewable energy through tax credits and energy savings, especially if Democrats win a majority in next year’s elections.

“While we could have had a discussion about this for another five years on what we would do, particularly if Democrats were all in charge, what we can do today is get these ideas into legislation,” she said.

Her co-sponsors include retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the likely next leader, Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who said it was a bill he could try to advance if Democrats take control.

And it remains to be seen whether lawmakers are willing to take up any energy legislation in the coming weeks and months. A bipartisan energy bill passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July is awaiting floor action, along with a Republican bill to allow oil exports that passed the committee without Democratic support.

Heitkamp is backing her own oil-exports bill, one that gives the president authority to halt exports in an economic emergency. That bill is set to get a vote next week in the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he supports a repeal.

But Cantwell tied Democratic votes for a repeal to the proposals in her bill, raising the prospect they would seek major concessions on the Senate floor that would hurt chances for passage of a repeal.

House Republicans have said they want to bring their own oil-exports bill to the floor in the coming week, but the White House has already come out in opposition to the bill.

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