Many of us carbon nerds remember President Clinton’s 1997 remarks announcing that an agreement had been reached at the climate negotiations in Kyoto, Japan. The speech was full of hope and happy economic words like “tools of the free market,” which referred to highly touted flexibility mechanisms like the Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation. President Clinton pointed the finger at the Developing World as the main missing piece to tackle this major problem. What came next resembled my last three attempts at trying to lose 10 pounds: Nothing. The Clinton-signed treaty never even made it to the Senate for ratification. Since 2000, US emissions have grown by 4.7%, which fortunately is down from a peak of 17.5% in 2007. One major reason that there was little political support for US action was the fact that the fastest growing and now largest source of emissions – China – refused to be part of a deal that required reductions of total emissions for them.
Last week, President Obama and Premier Xi stood together announcing a deal on emissions reductions between these two great nations. The fact that such a bilateral agreement is possible and sealed with a handshake is a big deal. My twitter feed’s pulse rose to 200 tpm. Cheers from the left and jeers from the right. In my humble opinion there are three main positives from this pact:
- China is willing to start thinking about reductions in terms of total carbon emissions, not carbon per unit of GDP. Carbon per unit of GDP can go down (meeting Chinese targets) while total emissions continue to rise in a rapidly growing economy. This is a major policy change.
- Climate change has become the responsibility of the very top layers of the Chinese government. The Chinese Premier and State Council are currently in charge of this issue, which leads me to think that centralized action is possible and imminent.
- President Obama is not going to throw the issue of climate change under the bus during his last two years. This agreement plus his $3 billion commitment to a global climate fund give the impression that he has not given up on potentially making progress on this issue.
Now I am too tall and uncoordinated to be a cheerleader. Blame my excessive reading of French existentialists during my 20s, but I see more doom than gloom still. Let’s look at the New York Times’ excellent graphic of what this deal really means:
The US pledged to cut emissions by at least 26% from 2005 level by 2025. By 2012 we already had cut emissions by 11%, so this leaves us with another 15%. While we could argue about the exact numbers for hours, the more stringent CAFE standards on the books and the Clean Power Plan (carbon dioxide standards for existing power generating sources) should get us there. Hence, if CAFE and the clean power plan get implemented and enforced, Obama will have kept his promise.
This leads me to my first source of concern. The GOP is already out for blood on this climate deal and is looking for ways to derail it. Some of my best friends are very good lawyers and they argue that derailing CAFE will be hard for the GOP; yet the CPP is vulnerable. It is a rule enforced by the EPA under the provisions of the Clean Air Act. Emissions reductions will come from individual states through State Implementation Plans (SIPs), which is the way we deal with criteria pollutants like PM10 and NOx.
I imagine a future where the EPA is severely defunded and a number of governors in high emitting states file SIPs which they have no intent to pursue. For example, in California we have violated the Clean Air Act every single year, yet as far as I can tell the stick, which is the withholding of federal highway funds, has never been exercised. The difference between carbon and local pollutants is that nobody likes local air pollution, which gave rise to efforts across the nation to clean up the air. When it comes to carbon, there are very few local benefits from its abatement (but significant health co-benefits due to the reductions in other pollutants from lower coal use), yet significant costs. This puts us in a world where there is regulation on the books that is not or weakly enforced and we miss the emission reduction goal. By a lot.
Now let’s turn to China. The only goal China has agreed to is that it would require its emissions to peak by “around 2030.” My three main concerns are:
- I hope “around” does not refer to a confidence interval measured in geological time scales.
- If you refer back to the New York Times graph above, growth of emissions from China until 2030 is literally off the chart. The graph stops at 8 billion metric tons roughly now.
- If we look at the forecast of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook for China, emissions in a status quo world are expected to peak “around” 2030 in the absence of any aggressive climate policy.
So where does this leave me? The amount of damage from carbon emissions that this highly applauded agreement would still leave on the books is likely significant. The informal consensus among my climate buddies is that this emission scenario, which represents a policy intervention on the part of the main two emitters, firmly puts us on a path beyond 2 degrees Celsius, which is the maximum some of us think we should strive for to prevent serious damages. To me this agreement represents the status quo baked into a shiny “agreement.” While I understand that reaching the goals embedded in this agreement represents the upper bound of what is politically feasible, I hope we can do more. James Inhofe’s latest comments make we want to have a stiff drink to drown my sorrows.
Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.