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In a major moment for climate policy, China, Brazil, and the U.S. all announce new commitments

President  Obama and President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, with National Park Service National Mall Superintendent Karen Laura Cucurullo (Front R), in Washington DC, USA, 29 June 2015. Rousseff is on her first official visit to Washington DC since she became president in 2011. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
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Brazil, the United States and China — three of the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters — all announced new goals Tuesday to curb climate change.

President Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, leaders of the Western Hemisphere’s two most populous countries, released a statement Tuesday pledging each country to get 20 percent of its electricity by 2030 from renewable sources, not including hydropower. In addition, Brazil pledged to restore 12 million hectares, or 46,332 square miles, of its forests — about the size of England — by 2030 while it also pursues “policies aimed at eliminating illegal deforestation.”

Also on Tuesday, China extended and solidified climate commitments made in November by releasing its own emissions reduction target in anticipation of the United Nations’ climate meeting in Paris in late 2015. The world’s largest emitter pledged to reduce the amount of carbon emitted relative to the size of its economy by 60 to 65 percent by 2030, building on cuts already made and in line with a prior agreement with the United States.

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The commitments by the three countries came in different forms and units, ranging from forest hectares to renewable energy gigawatts — but collectively appeared to represent a major step toward addressing climate change and cleaning global energy systems.

“This is a big deal,” said senior Obama adviser Brian Deese of the renewables agreement with Brazil on a press call.

Brazil’s forest-restoration target would have the effect of pulling more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by increasing the amount of photosynthesis performed by plants and trees.

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The agreement with Brazil marks another notch in Obama’s drive to elevate the issue of climate change in his international diplomacy and to make the Paris climate conference in December a success. The president has already devoted personal attention to pressing the leaders of China in  November, India in  January  and now Brazil — three rapidly growing emerging economies long considered among the places most reluctant to commit to limits on emissions.

In a joint news briefing with Rousseff on the second day of her visit to Washington, Obama called the renewable targets “very ambitious,” noting that it would mean a tripling of U.S. renewable energy output and a doubling for Brazil. He said the commitments would contribute to a “strong outcome” in Paris and would help “confront the common challenge we face.”

China’s announcement was also significant. In 2009, the country had set a goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2029. Those emissions are already down 33.8 percent, China said Tuesday, so the new target for 2030 keeps China on the same trajectory.

The trend is in part a consequence of energy policies, but it also reflects the country’s move toward an economy less focused on manufacturing and more focused on services. In addition, there is strong popular support for measures to cut visible air pollution, which has been dire.

China reached an agreement in November with the United States on climate goals, and on Tuesday, China formally filed its goals with the United Nations, reaffirming the November accord, including a goal of getting 20 percent of its primary energy from non-fossil fuels by 2030.

China, long the world’s largest producer of solar energy products, is already the largest customer for solar.

David Sandalow, a former undersecretary at the U.S. Energy Department and now a fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said China’s filing was “quite wide-ranging.”

“This is extremely detailed and it cuts across at least half a dozen different policy areas,” he said, suggesting the seriousness with which China is treating climate change.

In addition, South Korea announced emissions reductions Tuesday as part of the U.N. process, pledging a 37 percent reductions in its emissions from business-as-usual levels by 2030.

“These are significant and important steps forward by major countries in fighting global warming, and it’s an important start, although even more will be needed to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system,” said Sandalow.

A recent analysis by the International Energy Agency found that current pledges and policies to reduce national emissions were not enough to prevent warming that would exceed the internationally agreed upon threshold of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Unlike the historic U.S.-China agreement on emissions in November, the new U.S. Brazil deal focuses on increasing renewables rather than peaking or cutting emissions of pollutants. But it once again reinforces the active role of the White House in bringing major international players together prior to the Paris meeting in December.

“What this represents is the way in which U.S. diplomacy is helping get others committed to real change in policy, or in peaking their emissions,” says Phil Sharp, president of Resources for the Future.

Unlike China, which has vowed to cap carbon emissions no later than 2030, and the United States, Brazil has not filed detailed plans that are due at the United Nations ahead of the Paris meeting. And unlike the United States, Brazil is reluctant to commit to absolute targets. But as part of the statement Tuesday, it said that when it does file its formal plan, the country will pledge the “highest possible effort beyond its current actions.”

During her speech, Rousseff also said, “We want to reach zero deforestation by 2030 in Brazil, zero illegal deforestation by 2030.” But some environmentalists faulted the commitment on this front, suggesting that Brazil should go far beyond preventing what’s already illegal.

“The global scientific community has made clear that human activity is already changing the world’s climate system, causing serious impacts,” declared the joint statement by the United States and Brazil.

The two countries also noted that they had thus far led the world in reducing their emissions below 2005 levels — citing a 41 percent drop for Brazil (thanks largely to curbing deforestation) and a 10 percent drop for the United STates

Brazil’s reductions in deforestation over the past 10 years are widely heralded as a major success story — the country has been credited with cutting down deforestation by 80 percent since 2004 — but the vast Amazon rain forest is still losing a dramatic amount of area every year. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it lost 4,571 square kilometers in 2012 and 5,891 in 2013.

Because of the vastness of its forests, “no other country comes close to Brazil’s importance in reversing the trend of tropical forest loss,” a recent report by WWF noted.

“Restoration at this scale combined with rapid and full implementation of existing laws would go a long way toward shifting Brazil from shrinking forests to expanding forests, with large benefits to the global climate as well as Brazil’s rural economy and local communities,” Michael Wolosin, a managing director with Climate Advisers, said of Brazil’s forest restoration pledge.

Brazil’s pledge to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable energy — not including hydropower, the country’s dominant source of power — is ambitious. Currently, the country produces 71.8 percent of its electricity from hydro, 25.9 percent from power plants fueled by coal, oil and gas, nuclear and biomass, 2.3 percent from wind and just 0.1 percent from solar, according to figures from the country’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.

Dom Phillips contributed from Rio de Janeiro.