Reversing Course

By now anyone with an interest in climate change or global climate policy should have heard about the shocking climate agreement between the U.S. and China announced on Tuesday.  There has already been plenty written about the details of the agreement; it is undeniably a game-changer, a major step in the right direction, and a reason for cautious optimism about the direction of international climate policy.  I’m not going to focus here on the content, or implications, of the agreement but a brief summary for those who don’t know the details yet goes as follows:

  1. China has agreed to target 2030 as the year in which Chinese carbon emissions will peak, declining thereafter, with the goal of reaching their max emissions even earlier.  Further, China has agreed to increase the share of renewable energy in their power sources to 20% by 2030.  As others have pointed out, that requires adding the equivalent of a reasonably sized nuclear power plant every week from now until 2030.  That’s an ambitious goal.
  2. Obama has committed to a target of 26-28% below 2005 levels for U.S. carbon emissions to be reached by 2025.  Obama has also agreed to submit this target to the UNFCCC process in the run-up to the Paris negotiations.

While these are just targets, without legally binding enforcement mechanisms, the implications of this agreement go beyond just the obvious reductions in carbon emissions.  First, it removes one of the primary objections to action on climate change – that China is not doing anything.  This objection has motivated both U.S. Republican opposition but it has also provided cover for other developing countries (i.e. India and Brazil) to be less than ambitious in their own climate policy.  By committing to reducing its own emissions, binding or otherwise, China has removed a huge obstacle to action on climate policy.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of that action, which is why that’ll be the focus of the rest of this article.

It is not unfair to say that China has probably been the single greatest obstacle to action on climate change since Obama took office.  While its position evolved from outright hostility to a climate agreement at Copenhagen, to a carefully worded agreement at Durban, even a few months ago the prevailing opinion among U.S. climate policy experts was that “the prospect in the near term for a meaningful climate policy appears dim.”

China’s obstinance was significant not only because they are the world’s largest polluter but also because their refusal to commit to reducing emissions had made constructive negotiation on a climate treaty nearly impossible.  As we’ve written about before, no country will take action on the climate until it is in their political and/or economic self-interest.  But in a globalized world where industry can respond to increased pollution regulation in one place by moving to another where there is less regulation, when one country refuses to act, any country that does limit emissions is placing itself at a competitive disadvantage.  Because politicians are rational enough to recognize this type of free-riding action, China’s refusal to limit emissions ensured that most of the rest of the world did little to limit their own emissions.  In some cases, China’s action was given as justification for backing out of previous emission reduction commitments.

Does this mean that China’s current commitment to reduce emissions will release a flood of pent-up action on climate change?  Unlikely.  Climate change negotiation is hard.  The failure to reach a comprehensive agreement to date is more complicated than just one country refusing to play nice.  But the new China-U.S. agreement does make things easier.  One could, for the reasons discussed above, imagine China as having ‘veto power’ over any international climate agreement.  No agreement would be successful without their signing on for the simple fact that no other large country would agree to a treaty that didn’t include China.  If one viewed Europe as a second de facto veto power, at the other policy extreme from China, then you are left with a set of policy positions defined by Europe at one end and China at the other (that notably includes the status quo of not doing anything).  Existing work in political science has suggested that when the distance between respective veto players increases, the likelihood of the status quo surviving dramatically increases.  It is unsurprising that this has been the story of international climate negotiations.

China’s new agreement does not mean they’ve given up their veto power but they have acknowledged, in effect, that the status quo is no longer an option.  As a result, the respective veto players have moved slightly closer and, if the existing theory is correct, that should eventually lead to changing the status quo.

It would be too audacious to suggest that this new agreement indicates that the Peru negotiations in December will result in the long sought successor to the Kyoto protocol.  But it does mean that the world is closer to an international climate agreement than it was a week ago.  And it is a hopeful sign that by the Paris negotiations in 2015, such a climate agreement will be a real possibility.  Regardless of what happens in Peru or Paris however, this agreement means that for the first time the world’s largest polluters have agreed with each other that they should reduce their emissions.  That alone is a milestone.

Image credit courtesy of the White House via Wikimedia Commons, depicting President Obama visiting the Great Wall in 2009.


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