A Day Late and a Degree Short
Will the U.S.-China climate deal actually do anything to stop rising global temperatures?
President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping took the world by surprise this week, announcing a "landmark" climate agreement -- the product of months of secret negotiations. But how significant is the deal? Coverage of the announcement has veered from breathless enthusiasm to “nothing to see here” cynicism. They’re both right.
President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping took the world by surprise this week, announcing a "landmark" climate agreement — the product of months of secret negotiations. But how significant is the deal? Coverage of the announcement has veered from breathless enthusiasm to “nothing to see here” cynicism. They’re both right.
Already, climate activists are hailing it as a starting point, a new floor for action, not a ceiling. And for good reason. For the first time ever this year, both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) modeled what it would take keep the Earth’s surface temperature from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius to avoid catastrophic climate change. And the IEA helpfully broke this down regionally so we can see how far off these goals really are. And both the U.S. and China commitments, while ambitious, fall well short.
For the United States, the IEA projected a necessary 31 percent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2025, compared to the 26 to 28 percent President Obama just committed to. That misses the target, but the situation is likely worse. After 2025, the IEA projection has emissions reductions accelerating, but it is nearly impossible to imagine a scenario in which that would occur in the United States. Why? Because starting in 2025, U.S. nuclear power plants, which currently produce almost one-fifth of domestic power, will be getting mothballed. While some plants are already at risk of shuttering, unable to compete with low cost natural gas, the real movement will take place as Nuclear Regulatory Commission reactor licenses begin to expire.
And there’s a further catch. The administration made a point in its statements about the agreement of noting that their commitments could be achieved "under existing law," underlining that a cooperative Congress would not be necessary. In reality, what that means is a combination of aggressive CAFE standards (car and truck emissions) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation. But if we just take what is already proposed, it only gets us 55 percent of the way there, based on the EPA’s own estimates and those done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of the projected emissions impact of new CAFE standards.
Short of some transformational technological breakthrough, much of the remainder would have to be made up for by the expansion of proposed EPA regulations — well beyond the power sector to other energy intensive sectors like refining and heavy industry. Can all that be done? Certainly. But it is only possible if you keep the White House under Democratic control, which is far from certain. And even in the best-case scenario, one has to imagine vigorous efforts in Congress and in the courts to block, slow, or dilute progress. The chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, James Inhofe, has already vowed to "do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations." Washington’s political dysfunction, as with many other issues, is the primary barrier to progress.
Turning to China, the real meat of the deal is a commitment to hit peak emissions on or around 2030. While Beijing has hinted at this goal in recent statements, actually securing this commitment moves the needle. But in terms of actual progress, what President Xi committed to could be described as the new business as usual for China, with climate action driven more by social unrest over extreme air pollution and a broader economic policy effort to improve the efficiency and competitiveness of industry, than concerns over global warming.
China’s National Plan on Climate Change, released this September, already had a target of 15 percent of power from non-fossil energy by 2020, up from just 9.8 percent today. Increasing the share by another 5 percent in the decade following would therefore represent a slower pace of change. This is not to diminish the ambition of the goals, but rather to emphasize that China was already heading aggressively in this direction.
And the commitment to peak emissions? Already in the bag, according to government-affiliated experts in China. Last March, He Jiankun, deputy director of National Climate Change Expert Committee, said he expects China to reach peak emissions around 2030, when the country achieves industrialization and mid-phase urbanization. Some experts are even more optimistic. Lin Boqiang, director of China Energy and Economic Research Center at Xiamen University, told China Business News in September that China could see its coal consumption peak by 2020 and overall emissions follow in the next 3-4 years.
Even so, like in the U.S. example, the goal misses the mark. According to the IEA, to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, emissions in China would need to peak a good 10 years earlier — and actually have fallen by nearly 15 percent by 2030.
So what does matter about this "landmark" pact? The symbolism of the world’s two largest polluters reaching an agreement more than a year ahead of the Paris Climate Summit is meaningful and should energize talks. However you look at it, the spoiler of Copenhagen has come a long way and is demonstrating new global leadership. And perhaps even more meaningful, by setting targets that have per capita emissions converging, the United States has backed away from one of the major sticking points in negotiations with developing countries.
But while the environmental community may hope this is the new floor, they may actually find that the ceiling is quite a bit lower given the remarkably controversial and partisan nature of the climate change debate in the United States. In the end, it may prove to be the new terms of engagement — far from the ambitious, binding accord that advocates hope for, we are likely to see voluntary and technically achievable national pledges that get us to an agreement in Paris, albeit an imperfect one.
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.