Guest Post: A Big Deal on Climate?

by Daniel Bodansky

[Daniel Bodansky is Foundation Professor of Law at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.]

Is the US-China joint announcement on climate change a big deal? Opinions differ widely. Paul Krugman says yes, Tyler Cowan, no.

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.

6 Responses

  1. Response…Response…This is an incredible article. Mostly due to the fact the Prof. Bodansky probably wrote it in his sleep. But in all seriousness, the announcement that the US-China delegations are willing to talk about hitting target emission levels is, if nothing else, a step in the right direction. The fact that China is talking and negotiating is by itself a big deal. Given that they routinely were the cause of negotiations hitting or coming to a stalemate, their current willingness to come to the table is great.

  2. The impact of an election of a president in the United States that does not support this agreement would be large, as Prof. Bodansky already mentioned. And if that president were to take back the US promise, not only would climate relations between the two countries be damaged, but it could as well have an impact on trade relations as well as territorial politics in East Asia. This is why the next president, whoever it is, should be very careful when considering revising or completely nixing the deal. This is why, as Bodansky also mentioned, the line between soft and hard law is not exactly clear. There is the possibility of large political repercussions.

  3. As Prof. Bodansky already outlined, the U.S.-China announcement isn’t a “big deal” because it is necessarily going to have a substantial effect on the outcome of the Paris Summit next year, nor is it a “big deal” because it is likely to considerably reduce emissions and be a gigantic step in the right direction. However, it is a step in the right direction, and it is a “big deal” in the sense that China is saying that it is willing to cooperate and participate in global climate protection in a meaningful way. Although the language of the announcement is somewhat vague, and the proposed targets are probably nowhere near desired levels, the very fact that China is announcing its intent to limit carbon emissions along quantifiable goals, and announcing that it will actively participate in the problem-solving process, is a “big deal.”

  4. The fact that China has announced its “intentions” to limit its carbon emissions by 2030 is what makes this a “moderately big deal” as Prof Bodansky argues. There is nothing binding China to meet these targets and w/o steps or targets in place it may be possible that China will not take effective steps in reducing emissions until closer to 2030. However, I do agree with others that this is a big deal in terms of getting China to start moving in the right direction towards effectively curbing its emissions.

  5. I would have to agree with Prof. Bodanksy’s last comment that if it wasn’t such a big deal it would have been easier to reach. I do see this as continuing to be a fairly big deal in the fight for climate change, but the issue appears to never really be able to be stable/straight forward with the ever changing political tides of those parties involved. From the credibility of China’s research to the up coming elections in the US. It makes it hard to be optimistic that we will ever really reach a real agreement with honest reports on the issue of climate change.

  6. I believe that the article was correct in its assessment of the difficulties of implementing the emission targets. Professor Bodansky calls for US and Chinese targets to be incorporated into a climate agreement and therefore put on more solid footing. I believe that this is especially important in light of current economic developments regarding the price of oil and the struggles of OPEC. If oil prices continue to fall and the oil producing countries cannot reach an output limiting agreement, the US and China will have less incentive to search and invest in alternative fuels that could help them fulfill the targets under their announcement.

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