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Wednesday’s agreement between the United States and China to reduce carbon dioxide pollution marks a milestone for international climate diplomacy, and a crucial breakthrough for President Xi Jinping. Unlike American leaders, Chinese officials have never had to worry about climate-change deniers sabotaging international agreements. But they have often confronted an even more powerful obstacle: a deeply held belief that it’s unfair to expect China to make sacrifices to fix a problem created mostly by other countries. Experts are asking how the agreement will translate into specific actions, but the important fact is that China has broken with that past and, for the first time, promised to cap its carbon emissions.

Today China is the world’s largest carbon polluter — but that’s a relatively new development, and most of the accumulated carbon pollution in the atmosphere is still from developed countries. From the perspective of many Chinese, asking a developing country with a vast population still living in poverty to agree to any carbon cuts reeked of hypocrisy; Western countries burned coal along their path to prosperity, and are only switching to renewables now that they’re wealthy. Worse, demands from foreign activists and governments to abandon a cheap energy source tapped into fears that Western powers continue to conspire to keep China poor and weak.


Over time, though, resisting carbon cuts on those grounds has become increasingly self-defeating and short-sighted. As China’s own pollution problem and vulnerability to climate change came into focus, Beijing sometimes seemed more concerned with proving a point than protecting its own interests. Historical score-settling aside, coastal areas of China are at risk from rising sea levels. The country’s urban residents choke on some of the smoggiest air on earth. Droughts in China are increasing. Xi’s actions should reset the conversation around Chinese climate policy, moving it away from righteous posturing and toward pragmatic solutions.

The actual target that China agreed to is relatively modest: the government will reach peak carbon emissions by around 2030, then begin cutting emissions. By that year, Beijing also pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuels it uses to 20 percent of its energy mix, which will require constructing vast amounts of new solar, wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear power facilities. Some environmentalists are already criticizing those goals as inadequate, and want Beijing to begin reducing its carbon use before 2030. The American commitment is also limited, and mostly involves regulations on power plant emissions and auto exhaust that the Obama administration has already announced. The United States pledged to reduce emissions by 25 to 28 percent by 2025.


Subsequent agreements, though, can toughen those goals. The breakthrough on Wednesday is the existence of the agreement itself, between two countries that have resisted such international accords for different sets of ideological reasons. By sending a message that China is now willing to sign up for carbon limits, Xi can change the international dialogue, since China’s nonparticipation in past climate pacts provided an excuse for inaction in the United States and elsewhere. The deal should also breathe life into the next attempt to strike a new international climate deal, which is planned for next year in Paris. Just as important, Xi has sent a message to his own country: no matter what happened in the past, the responsibility for fighting climate change now belongs to everyone.