The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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For All the Tea in China

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have just made an historic agreement to dramatically cut carbon emissions for both countries!

Except that the agreement isn’t legally binding, would not reduce emissions enough to meet the IPCC’s recommendations, Mr. Obama has virtually no support from Congress, and the Chinese office of President is ceremonial. It’s complicated.

Basically, the agreement is excellent news and could represent a starting point for some truly critical work in the years ahead. But it is important to put the agreement in context, to understand how this starting point might be used as a foundation of progress. I also want to explore China’s climate politics a bit, since I have already explored America’s. Eventually, I want to do profiles of all the major climate players.

First, to be clear, while the Chinese Presidency is an almost purely ceremonial position, President Xi is not a mere figurehead. In China, it is possible for one person to hold several political offices simultaneously and Mr. Xi does. It’s the equivalent of a single American simultaneously serving as President, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I don’t mean that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are each headed by the same person, because China’s government branches according to different principles than the American one does. I mean that China’s initial attempt to divide power so as to prevent to rise of another such as Mao Zedong has been effectively undone some time ago.

To someone used to the U.S. system, the Chinese government looks chaotic, despite the actual fact of its tight internal control. Part of the reason is that in Chinese politics personal relationships are primary and official title is secondary; it’s who you know that’s important. I have not been able to find information on whether President Xi faces substantial opposition at home or whether he has the political ties necessary to make the new policy stick. So far, it is a non-legally-binding promise only. But given Mr. Xi’s status as China’s ultimate authority and the fact that the Chinese government still controls much of that country’s economic development, he does have advantages that Mr. Obama does not.

Not that I wish the U.S. had a dictatorship–I wish our democratically elected Congress cared about climate. But that is another topic.

The deal was essentially President Obama’s idea. He and Secretary of State John Kerry initiated and pursued months of negotiations that concluded successfully almost literally at the last moment. But the Chinese government has been facing political pressure over the thick, dangerous smog blanketing much of the country because of its reliance on coal for energy. Many wealthy Chinese people even leave the country because the air is so bad. In recent years, China has invested heavily in clean, renewable energy, and regards such investment as a sound business strategy. Its government has everything to gain politically by literally clearing the air.

In brief, China has agreed to cap its emissions by 2030 (or sooner) and to shift to at least 20% non-fossil fuel energy sources, also by 2030. The U.S. has agreed to cut its emissions 26-28% below what they were in 2005 by 2025, extending existing goals by almost half again. Together, the U.S. and China are responsible for almost half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. At least as important, the United States is a developed country while China is a developing country, meaning that the old deadlock of which type of economy should cut emissions first may be easing. Finally, both the U.S. and China have been intransigent on climate for a long time, now. Once we stop blocking the flow, further work on the subject is possible.

By the end of the current century, these agreements would result in about 20 billion tons less carbon dioxide going into the air every year, over a projected “business-as-usual” scenario. That’s about 10 billion tons better than existing U.S. and EU pledges. If other countries follow China’s lead by making similar pledges, global greenhouse gas emissions could start to slowly edge down in the next decade or two, bringing us to just under 40 billion tones per year by the end of the century.

Which is, of course, still way too much. We need to phase out fossil fuel use entirely well before the end of this century in order to avoid climate catastrophe. The IPCC emphasizes this point and they are hardly the only ones calling for a complete phase-out. But this is a beginning. If these deals can stick politically, they may pave the way for more aggressive reductions in the future. They’ll help get the ball rolling in terms of developing green energy infrastructures as well. These small but historic deals are a foot in the door of the future.

Predictably, the American Congressional leadership is on the attack. They charge that this deal will hurt the U.S. economy and that China will not have to change as much as the U.S. will. Neither charge is true. The U.S. could actually see an economic boost out of this, since new regulations will indirectly spur growth. Green energy tends to be better for the economy than fossil fuel, since it tends to require more employees per unit of energy–an equation that suggests why industry leaders are so dead-set against it–more jobs mean narrower profit margins. Unfortunately, truth is seldom important to those resisting climate sanity.

If this deal sticks, we have a chance for more and better deals in the future. If it does not, we might not. Mr. Xi more or less has China covered, for better or worse, but Mr. Obama needs the support of his people and he desperately needs a successor and a Congressional majority serious about climate change.

Support the new EPA rules. They are the primary instrument by which President Obama can hope to reduce American emissions and the political opposition to them is fierce. You can make an official comment in support of the rules through this link until the end of November. Continue to attend any climate demonstrations that come up–large marches do have real political impact, the bigger the better.

And please stay politically involved. Vote, next time you can.