The US-China Climate "Deal"

It’s been interesting to observe the many initial media reports on Tuesday’s climate change target announcements, characterizing the joint announcements about climate targets as “deals” or “agreement.” Then, after the initial media euphoria, much more criticism, both explaining that there wasn’t a deal and also that China’s commitment may not mean much.  (For example, Harvard’s Jack Goldsmith sought to de-hype the media reports in the Lawfare blog.)

On the deal issue, a careful reading of the announcement itself indicates that the US and China’s pledges were unilateral commitments that were not in themselves formally linked to each other.  So, of course not a deal in the formal sense of an agreement or a treaty.  On the other hand, a Wall Street Journal article discussing the run-up to the announcement as well as its orchestration leave little doubt that the decision to announce these goals publicly were the result of mutual reliance on the other’s public announcement of future action on GHG emissions.  And that sense, the announcement represents a “deal,” at least to give the public appearance of going forward in cooperation.  Either way one looks at it, though, there really was never any question that these pledges are not intended to be enforceable in any way.

Regardless, enthusiasm for the announcements, was still justified in my opinion – this level of engagement and specificity of public pledges by the US and China on climate change and their mutual engagement on the issue is historic and of critical important for the international community.

I do remain puzzled by the broad media assumption that China’s pledge will simply come true, in spite of the difficulties China has had in managing and addressing its existing pollution.  Not that the 2030 peak emission goal could not be achieved, especially since it is so far out and there is so much time.  But I don’t think there is real certainty, unless the underlying regulatory system is reformed in the process. Even with the anticipation of further industrial restructuring and macro-economic changes that will seek to change energy usage and supply so as to limit GHG emissions, it is not clear that that will be enough because of ongoing governance, implementation, and accountability difficulties.

But the underlying regulatory and governance challenges that have made it difficult to solve the existing pollution problems also point to an opportunity.  If China’s existing pollution control laws and accountability mechanisms were to be implemented effectively, including those contained in the recent 2014 Environmental Protection Law Revisions, that could justify much greater optimism about China’s GHG emission trajectory.

Joint US-China Announcement on Climate Change Targets

It’s just been reported in the NY Times that US President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping made a joint announcements about greenhouse gas emission targets.  There is also already a Fact Sheet from the White House on this.  The US will reduce its GHG emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025.  China will peak CO2 emissions by 2030, with the intention to peak earlier and to increase the non-fossil fuel share of energy to around 20% by 2030.

These announcements compare with the US’s 2009 Copenhagen pledge of 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 and China’s pledge of 40-45% reduction in emission intensity from 2005 levels by 2020 (i.e. not a pledge to actually limit GHG emissions overall, just to slow the consumption of energy per unit of GDP).

For the US, per the Fact Sheet, this would put it on a trajectory of 80% emission cuts of 2005 levels by 2050.  For China is especially notable because it had previously never made public commitments about peaking its GHG emission, implying that it would actually start reducing emissions after that peak.  Equally important, the joint announcement is a positive sign of US-China cooperative efforts on climate change, continuing the positive cooperative effort announced by both Presidents last year regarding HFC reductions (another potent GHG).  Ideally, this joint announcement will lead to more good things, both in terms of efforts at the national level as well as cooperation in international fora, such as the UNFCCC.

But there are of course caveats to the announcement.  For one thing, it’s not clear whether the reference to CO2 peaking by China was intentionally specific and designed to exclude other GHGs such as methane from the plan.  And the anticipated US reductions depend not only on the emission reductions will depend on ongoing regulatory efforts that may yet be challenged in the courts.  Keep in mind also that the base line under the Kyoto Protocol are 1990 levels of GHG emissions; so reductions from 2005 levels will look less impressive with a 1990 baseline.

One other item that struck me in the quick read of the Fact Sheet, almost a glaring omission in the list of cooperative efforts:  cooperation on environmental governance and regulation related to GHG emissions.  While the joint announcement is very positive in terms of staking out an official position for China with respect to eventual GHG emission reductions, the actually progress will only partially depend on technological advances.  China’s weak environmental governance system will be a huge drag on any of the central government’s domestic efforts to implement any national emission control objectives.  The sooner this impediment to emission control is recognized, the more likely it is (and the sooner) that the announced CO2 peak will actually be realized.

The omission in the announcement is also surprising because there is much that can be built upon with ongoing EPA-MEP (Ministry of Environmental Protection) cooperation on environmental law and regulation and because these positive EPA-MEP efforts were explicitly mentioned in last year’s US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting.