Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Important U.S./China Climate Deal in Beijing

I was stunned to read this New York Times article last night about a new U.S./China climate deal in Beijing.  It is a very big deal.
Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

I'll explain why in a moment, but here's a bit of background on this development.

In 1997, the United Nations forged an international agreement called the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases around the planet.  This effort was undertaken after the successful effort to reduce chlorofluorocarbons that impacted the ozonosphere.  

The agreement is complex, but in a nutshell, it required developed nations to reduce greenhouse gases while allowing developing nations to continue to produce them.  The difference between policy for developing and developed nations is at the heart of the challenge for international agreements.  

The developed countries have been producing greenhouse gases historically for many many decades at levels far higher than the developing countries.  Since energy is key to development, the developing countries argue that limiting their greenhouse gases output stagnates their potential development and gives historic preferential treatment to developed countries that caused the problem in the first place.

The argument is particularly problematic because China and India which today are 1st and 3rd in greenhouse gas production (the U.S. is #2) were classified as developing nations and did not have any limits on greenhouse gas emissions.  They have been hesitant to agree to any limits to greenhouse gas production.  

The U.S. Congress felt that this was not a fair system and did not ratify the Kyoto treaty.  Since 1997, the U.S. government stagnated on climate change policy, leaving individual states and cities to develop policy.  I've written quite a bit about this on this blog.  You can see some of this here and here.

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Because the U.S. did not ratify the treaty, many in the developing world, particularly those nations that are already seeing the impacts of climate change or are vulnerable to long-term impacts, have seen the U.S. in a bad light.  The lack of movement on any international agreement or U.S. national policy hurt our reputation across the planet.

At the same time, China has been elevating its position by forging strong national climate change policies and agreements with developing nations.  For example China is developing a new cap and trade program.  I wrote about this here.  Because of these initiatives, China has made significant inroads around the developing world and the U.S. has become less influential and more isolated.  

The agreement provides and opportunity for the United States to regain some leadership on the international issues associated with climate change.  

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
I thought it would be worthwhile to comment a bit on the nuts and bolts of this new agreement.  There are two ways to think about greenhouse gas emissions at the national level.  First, one can look at total national production.  This is a raw number that places China as #1 emitter and U.S. as #2 emitter.  However, that is not the full story.  It is important to look deeper into the data by examining per capita emissions.  When one does this, one finds that the U.S. per capita emissions of carbon dioxide are three times as high as China's.  China's per capita emissions are more in line with a nation like Serbia or Thailand than a major industrial nation like the U.S.  Indeed, if one looks at a list of per capita nations there are very few that have higher per capital emissions than the U.S.  Even the industrial European powerhouse Germany has per capita emissions that are half of those of the U.S.

The agreement that was signed in Beijing requires the U.S. to reduce carbon emissions by 28% by 2030 when compared with 2005 levels.  I think this is a very modest number and quite doable.  We are well on our way.  At the same time, China has agreed to reach peak emissions by 2030.  What this means is that the agreement gives China 15 years to continue to grow per capita emissions.  At this time, it will decrease emissions.  Again, I think this is very doable given China's aggressive move into renewable energy and greenhouse gas policy.

In many ways, this agreement is a reset button that allows the United States to reenter the international stage on climate policy.  It also provides an opportunity for the major greenhouse gas polluters to transform discussions on international climate change policy which have been stuck for decades.

(note, if you are interested in other issues related to China and climate change policy, you can search this blog by putting in "China" in the search box at the top of the page)


Naimish said...

Hi Dr. B, this is big news indeed, and is going to be very significant for India. China, by signing this commitment (or rather statement of intent) with the US, will put the focus squarely on India and some of the other larger, developing economies. There is going to be a lot of pressure on us now! India is looking at this development as yet another example of China's real-politik. But I think this is for good - India would be better off thinking through its own future growth plans and devising its own energy / climate change strategy and targets, rather than being part of any "club" in global climate discussions. You would know we have put a numerical target on our Carbon intensity, but it just does not do much for the climate when you consider India's humungous growth plans, and needs.

Bob Brinkmann said...

So true Naimish. I was wondering how India was going to react to this news. Thanks for your comment!