The US-China Climate Change Deal: ‘Game-changer’ or ‘Non-binding charade?’

The US-China Climate Change Deal: ‘Game-changer’ or ‘Non-binding charade?’

President Obama’s recent announcement that the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases - the US and China - had come to a ‘historic agreement’, should surely be cause for celebration in a world threatened by global warming on a major scale.

However, it has received a mixed reception. Why? The deal is non-binding: a bilateral agreement based upon successive promises - “you do this, we’ll do that” – and if the US does not deliver on any actions to reduce emissions, then the Chinese would have no international legal obligation to do so. Some critics have understandably viewed the deal, therefore, as ‘meaningless’, but others are more optimistic. As multilateral climate change negotiations in Paris fast appear on the horizon, and the EU has agreed a set of targets for 2030, it could be argued that the onus is now on other countries to follow suit and work towards a ‘relevant and meaningful’ multilateral climate change agreement. If that happens, then Obama’s achievement of getting China to come closer to the bargaining table could very well be perceived as ‘historic’, or at the least, a ‘smart move’.

[Tweet "Xi Jinping agreed to shift at least 20% of Chinese energy production to non-fossil fuels"]What does the deal offer? The New York Times reported that officials from the two superpowers had secretly worked, for nine months, to ‘give birth to the deal’, under which Obama declared that the US would cut its emissions by 26-28% by 2025, compared to the 2005 levels. This would more than double the rate of reduction previously targeted for 2020. In return, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping agreed to shift at least 20% of Chinese energy production to non-fossil fuels, and achieve the peaking of fossil CO2 emissions by 2030, at which point emissions will then begin to decline. It is felt that the Chinese intend to move away from coal and towards nuclear power, and this has been in their plans for some time. That said, it should be noted that between January and June, 2014, China installed 3.3 GW of solar capacity, and provided $23.5 billion in financing 4 solar ventures in 2013 - more than all of Europe put together – so, these can be seen as the actions of a country serious about climate change, and renewable sources, in particular. Furthermore, Beijing has announced that the use of coal will be banned in the city by 2020. Surveys have shown that air pollution is the number one concern of the Chinese public, and the government may well be securing their position of power by turning to a clean energy agenda.

After being the main protagonists in preventing a world climate deal at Copenhagen five years ago, China and the US have now, as the Guardian newspaper reported, “unblocked the road to a new agreement in Paris.” Time magazine observed that: “China has shown that it has the political will to take action on climate change and is ‘increasingly comfortable’ being seen to act as part of an international effort.”

However, opposition to the deal is fierce in some quarters. The incoming Senate majority leader, Mitch O’Connell, has vowed to not only “get the EPA reined in”, but to make “rolling back Obama’s climate plan a priority”, whilst Senator James Inhofe, another Republican, who will be the new Chair of the Senate environment and Public Works Committee, referred to the pact with China as a ‘non-binding charade’. The Republicans, who will now control Congress as well as the Senate, can use the federal budget to choke the EPA’s spending plans, and even apply a rarely used Congressional Review Act to repeal EPA regulations. As part of the broader picture, though, Obama’s successor, whether Democrat or Republican, will find it difficult to break the commitments which have been made, against the risk of alienating America’s most important trading partner.

[Tweet "When one looks at hard figures, then the gloss on Obama’s deal with China begins to fade somewhat"]When one looks at hard figures, then the gloss on Obama’s deal with China begins to fade somewhat. For instance, China produced 9.8% of its energy from renewable sources by the end of 2013, and intends to reach 15% by 2020. This makes the target figure of 20% by 2030 woeful, certainly open to the accusation of not being ambitious enough, and will not help the world avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The IEA’s scenario of seeing the world prevent 2 degrees of warming sets the necessary target for China to produce energy from renewables at 26% by 2030. So, clearly Obama’s bilateral deal with China was lacking in basic arithmetic, and he should have pressured the Chinese to raise the level of their renewable sources of energy. Another major issue is: how high will China’s emissions peak be, by 2030? Nobody knows, and this lies behind both the arguments of the pessimists and the optimists when they criticise or praise the deal. The confusion it leaves is not beneficial. It is most worrying when you see that, in the last five years, China’s CO2 emissions increased by 40%. China has recently overtaken the EU’s average figure for per capita emissions, and the country’s energy consumption seems sure to continue rising. As 70% of China’s consumption is in industry (only just over 30% in the US by comparison), the scope to increase China’s greenhouse gases remains huge.

China is still building large numbers of coal power plants, and most of the existing ones were only built after 2000, so few coal power plants are due for retirement as in the US. This leads to the question of when China will ultimately turn away from using coal on a massive scale. Critics suggest that India, another leading coal consumer in the world, may well seek a similar deal at Paris as China agreed with Obama, establishing 2030 as a peak year for its emissions, before doing very much to reduce them. Indeed, the Times newspaper in India cynically observed: “it is a self-serving deal in which both countries have agreed to converge their pre-capita emissions at 12 tonnes in 2030.”

[Tweet "“dressing up existing policies in new clothes”"]When one looks at the original documents behind the US-China pact, one can find the plans to realise their targets, and these include: advancing major CCS demonstrations; launching a climate-smart, low-carbon cities initiative; promoting trade in green products; and expanding R&D into building efficient, clean vehicles, advanced coal technologies, as well as boiler-efficient solar energy and smart grids. However, one may ask: aren’t these developments happening already? The suspicion remains, therefore, that the US-China deal is simply a matter of “dressing up existing policies in new clothes”, and the two superpowers bolstering each other, especially when Obama, as he approaches the end of his two terms in office, desires a lasting legacy. I hope that I am wrong, and the Times of India, also. As countries are due to announce their targets by the end of March 2015, as part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s ongoing efforts to garner support for a new global deal, the real impact of the US-China deal will become then much clearer.

Peter Whiley, specialist Grupa LOTOS