Faculty React to U.S.-China Climate Agreement

UPDATED: November 14, 2014, at 5:20 p.m.

Reacting to a recent agreement jointly declared by the U.S. and China to reduce carbon emissions, Harvard faculty members said they are optimistic about collaboration between the two countries, but caution that it is difficult to predict the outcomes of the agreement.

At a conference in Beijing earlier this week, President Obama declared new U.S. targets for carbon emissions reductions while President Xi Jinping publicized China’s first commitment to halt the growth of its carbon emissions by 2030.

Several Harvard faculty members said the announcement signifies the first step for international cooperation to combat climate change.

“It is symbolic that the U.S. and China are working together to reduce pollution,” said Economics professor Dale W. Jorgenson. “I think the agreement is very important because it was announced in a prominent setting.”


William C. Kirby, a historian of China in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said the agreement requires the two countries to set aside areas of disagreement in favor of cooperation to implement the policies.

Some faculty members, however, said that it is currently difficult to predict the effectiveness of this agreement in curbing carbon emissions due to its non-binding nature.

Dwight H. Perkins, professor of political economy at the Kennedy School of Government, said the success of the U.S.-China agreement depends on whether both countries will take concrete steps to implement it.

“Will the Chinese be able to keep these targets? Can they implement what they say they will implement?” Perkins asked.

While the announcement does not oblige the countries to implement specific cutbacks, postdoctoral fellow at the Kennedy School Kyle A. Jaros said that the willingness of the U.S. and China to prioritize climate change opens a window of opportunity for international cooperation to reduce pollution.

Several professors also said the agreement could have a positive influence on international cooperation.

For Jeffrey A. Frankel, professor of capital formation and growth at the Kennedy School, one of the most important aspects of the agreement is the significance of the decision in catalyzing global movement on reducing carbon emission.

“It was hard to expect other countries of the world to [join] if the U.S. and China were not participating in [taking steps against climate change] in a meaningful way,” Frankel said. “But now we have the big three [involved]—the European Union, U.S., and China—so I think it breeds a lot of much needed new life into ongoing negotiations.”

Robert N. Stavins, professor of business and government at the Kennedy School, agreed.

“This places pressure on the other larger emerging economies to join together with the countries of the industrialized world to take action,” Stavins said.


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