16 Nov Guest Post: A Big Deal on Climate?
[Daniel Bodansky is Foundation Professor of Law at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.]
Who’s right? Is the announcement a “gamechanger,” as Joe Romm thinks, or “a well-timed, well-orchestrated press release,” as Cowan calls it? In part, the different answers reflect different measures of success, a point to which I will return in a moment.
But, first, a little background. Back in 2011, the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted the Durban Platform, which launched negotiations to develop a new legal instrument to limit global greenhouse gas emissions post-2020. The Durban Platform negotiations are to be completed and a new agreement adopted in December 2015 at the Paris conference of the parties. A decision adopted last year in Warsaw called on states to communicate their intended national contributions to the new agreement well in advance of the Paris meeting. What the United States and China unveiled in Beijing – although generally characterized as an “agreement” or “pact” – were their intended national emission targets under the 2015 agreement.
At least four metrics are relevant in evaluating the joint announcement:
First, do the announced targets put us on a pathway towards limiting climate change to safe levels? Safety involves value judgments, of course, but most scientists believe that warming of more 1.5-2° C above pre-industrial levels would result in dangerous impacts – impacts that most people would wish to avoid. (The earth is already about .8 degrees warmer than pre-industrial level, so we’re almost halfway there.) Even the most ardent boosters of the US-China deal don’t claim that, by itself, it will put the world on a 2° pathway, only that it is a first step.
Second, do the targets announced by the United States and China represent a significant improvement over business as usual? Or, to put it differently, will achieving them require the US and China to significantly ratchet up their level of effort? Here, opinions differ widely, because they depend on judgments about what would happen in the absence of the targets, which in turn depend on assumptions about the economy, technology, and government policies more generally – all of which are highly uncertain. Who would have predicted, ten years ago, the Great Recession and the rapid expansion of fracking, both of which have had a huge influence on US emissions? So it is perhaps not surprising that some analysts say the US-China announcement “doesn’t change things much,” while others think it represents a major advance. Climate Interactive, for example, calculates that the US-China targets, if fully implemented, would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 650 billion tons through 2100 – and if other countries follow suit, taking similar targets, global emissions would be reduced by about 2500 billion tons through 2100.
A brief sampling of estimates of Chinese and US emissions:
- A 2011 study by Lawrence Berkeley Lab analyzed two possible scenarios for China’s emissions. In one, China’s emissions peaked in 2025; in the other, in 2035. So depending on which scenario one uses, the Chinese target may or may not be ambitious.
- Another study by the Tsinghua/MIT China Energy and Climate Project found that, with a continuation of current policies, China’s emissions won’t peak until around 2040, and that peaking around 2030 (as China announced) would require strong action.
- In contrast, a 2013 study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance on the future of China’s power sector calculated in its “new normal” scenario that emissions from the energy sector will peak in 2027 and renewables will account for about 30% of total general.
- As for the United States, the Energy Information Agency’s reference case (in its 2014 Annual Energy Outlook) projects energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2025 will be only about 10% below 2005 levels, as compared to the 26-28% reduction target announced in Beijing.
My conclusion: although nothing is certain in the climate change business, the US-China targets seem reasonably aggressive.
Third, how likely will the targets be achieved? Even if the targets are themselves a “big deal,” their importance diminishes if there is only a limited prospect of implementation. This is Tyler Cowan’s critique of the joint announcement. He argues that “China is notorious for making announcements about air pollution and then not implementing them,” in part because much of the Chinese regulatory apparatus is at the local level, which is not subject to effective control from the center, and where corruption and cronyism are problems. The United States faces different problems – most prominently, that the US target reflects Obama Administration policies, rather than a wider political consensus, and therefore could easily be overturned by new elections. These concerns regarding implementation are valid, and highlight the need for the US and Chinese targets to be incorporated into a new climate agreement, which establishes a strong system of transparency and international review.
Jack Goldsmith raises a related criticism, namely, that the US-China deal is quite soft. Its targets are aspirational; it does not address implementation; and it “create no obligations whatsoever.” All this is true, but the difference between soft and hard law is not as sharp as Jack suggests. Even if the US and Chinese targets were legally-binding internationally, there would still be no assurance of fulfillment; and even though the US-China targets are aspirational, they still exert pressure for compliance. Moreover, the legal status of the targets is unlikely to change, even if states succeed in adopting a new legal agreement in Paris, since the agreement is likely to focus on procedural issues such as reporting and review, rather than on making states’ emission targets legally binding.
Finally, is the US-China announcement a gamechanger in the international negotiation of a new climate change agreement? Certainly, it will inject new energy into the negotiations, and make a deal next year in Paris more likely. And China’s willingness to articulate an absolute, quantitative emissions target represents a dramatic shift in its negotiating position – one that seemed remote only a few years ago. But I doubt the US-China announcement will fundamentally change the Paris outcome. The negotiations already seemed on track to produce a new agreement, reflecting a bottom-up architecture, consisting of national pledges (like those announced in Beijing) and international review. The US-China announcement makes it less likely that the Paris process will be derailed, but it does not attempt to switch the negotiations onto a different track.
So I would characterize the US-China announcement as a moderately big deal. If it were simply hype – simply a well-orchestrated press release – it should have been easy to reach, rather than the product of months of arduous, tough negotiations. And, if the US and Chinese targets simply reflected business as usual, one wouldn’t expect them to have been so hard to formulate. In any event, even if the announcement is more modest than its supporters claim, in an arena where less not more has been the default option, a half full glass looks pretty good.