U.S.-China Climate Deal “Heartening” But “Hyped”

U.S.-China Climate Deal “Heartening” But “Hyped”

This week’s landmark agreement on climate change between the U.S. and China, which promises capped Chinese emissions and reductions from America, has met mixed reactions, including those from climate experts who see the deal as “heartening” but largely symbolic. Alister Doyle at Reuters reports:

“This is a heartening development,” Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told Reuters. “This is a good beginning and I hope the global community follows this lead and maybe builds on it.”

He acknowledged that the deal fell far short of a road map toward zero net emissions by 2100 that an IPCC report on Nov. 2 indicated was needed to avert the worst.

The IPCC said unchecked climate change could have “severe, widespread and irreversible impacts” on human society and nature with heatwaves, floods, storms and rising sea levels. [Source]

At Politico, Michael Grunwald writes that the climate announcement is primarily a restatement of existing American and Chinese carbon emission trajectories, which have already achieved significant results ahead of the joint agreements.

But the agreement itself is not really climate progress. It’s purely voluntary; the U.S. Senate would never ratify a binding treaty. It’s not overly ambitious; it sets goals for the U.S. (a 26-28% reduction of 2005 emissions levels by 2025) and China (a transition to 20% non-fossil energy by 2030) they might well have achieved anyway. The U.S. goal is paltry compared to that of the European Union, which includes a 40% reduction from 1990 emissions levels by 2030. China isn’t even committing to start reducing emissions for the next sixteen years. And there’s no apparent mechanism to translate any of these modest goals into a transition away from the coal-fired electricity and oil-based transportation that’s broiling the planet.

The good news is that in recent years, without any treaty or agreement, the U.S. and China have both taken real action that has led to real climate progress. In the U.S., Obama poured an astonishing $90 billion into clean energy in his 2009 stimulus bill, then pushed a variety of rules cracking down on coal plants and tightening fuel-efficiency standards. Today, coal-fired power production is already down 20% from 2005 levels, and another 10% of the coal fleet is scheduled for retirement. That’s partly because of the domestic natural gas boom, but U.S. wind production has tripled and solar power has increased more than tenfold during the Obama presidency. Obama has also enacted much stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks; as a result, we’re guzzling significantly less gasoline. [Source]

Harvard Law School’s Jack Goldsmith also expressed reservations at Lawfare:

The U.S.-China announcement, in short, is aspirational. Which is not to say that it is meaningless! Perhaps it is true that (as the document says) that “by announcing these targets now,” China and the United States “can inject momentum into the global climate negotiations and inspire other countries to join in coming forward with ambitious actions as soon as possible, preferably by the first quarter of 2015.” The very perception that China and the United States are not serious about reducing carbon emissions has held back other countries from reducing them, so perhaps the appearance of seriousness about such reductions by these two countries, and the appearance of working together on the issues, might spur others to act. Perhaps, also, future presidents will feel morally bound by the intentions stated here, or perhaps this announcement will change the politics of climate change, domestically or internationally, in a way that future presidents (and other leaders) will find hard to escape. Or perhaps the United States will elect another president as eager as President Obama is to stopping climate change. Perhaps some or all of these things will happen. My only point is that the climate change “announcement” has been hyped. [Source]

While the climate agreement has been widely praised in the U.S. as a significant breakthrough, the Chinese media response has been relatively muted. Foreign Policy’s Alexa Olesen explains that domestic politics may be responsible for the Chinese media’s apparent lack of enthusiasm:

So why isn’t Beijing celebrating and advertising its new willingness to do something for the greater good? Deborah Seligsohn, an expert on the Chinese environment at the University of California San Diego, told FPthat Chinese leaders “tend not to enthuse,” so that may in part explain Xi’s reserve. But she also said that Beijing is under fire domestically for its unsuccessful efforts to curb local air pollution, noting that people were furious that authorities managed to clear the air for the visiting APEC dignitaries but can’t do it on a daily basis for their own citizens. There may be worries that focusing on climate change rather than air pollution doesn’t meet the public’s main concerns,” Seligsohn said via email.

And indeed, on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, there were grumblings over the joint statement, with one commentator in eastern China’s Zhejiang province wondering why Beijing was signing an accord with the United States on climate when those who are suffering the most due to China’s emissions are the Chinese people themselves. “Whomever can commit to capping emissions now and starting to reduce from here, they can have the support of the Chinese people.” [Source]

A number of Chinese newspapers have openly cautioned against expecting dramatic emission cuts from Beijing. BBC News reports:

Noting that this is the first time both countries have reached an agreement on a world issue, the Chinese edition of the Global Times praises the “existence of a China-US joint leadership”.

However, the papers subtly hints that China will not make any dramatic cuts despite pressures from the US and Europe.

“It is the basic right of the people to pursue a moderately comfortable life and improve their living standards. We need to balance many factors and move on step by step,” it says.

Echoing similar views, a commentary in the Beijing Times welcomes the “shared responsibility” of tackling emissions but also reminds readers of the “differences” that still exist between the two countries.

It says that the US and other industrialised countries need to shoulder more responsibility because their longer-term actions have had an impact on the environment. [Source]

Even so, Sam Geall writes at The Conversation that the climate deal might promote future climate action in China:

Still, the announcement may also indicate an understanding not only of the risks of inaction, but also of the opportunities of moving towards low-carbon development. These include greater efficiency and lower costs, and the opportunity to benefit strategically and economically from innovation in low-carbon technologies.

[…] China may also see persuasive economic arguments for cleaner growth. Today China not only leads the world in renewable energy investment, but also sees innovation that’s driven by demand. For example, “disruptive” technology is being developed in the form of electric bicycles (more efficient and environmentally friendly than cars) and the world’s largest installation of solar water heaters.

Perhaps then, we are seeing a turning point that, in the words of the World Resources Institute’s Jennifer Morgan, can spur a new “race to the top” as the world approaches UN climate talks in Paris and both China and the US get serious about tackling their emissions. [Source]


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