A breakthrough on climate change

When news got out that U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping had reached an agreement on climate change, the American blogosphere lit up with negative comments.

When news got out that U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping had reached an agreement on climate change, the American blogosphere lit up with negative comments.

“The problem is, Obama probably means it,” wrote Jazz Shaw of the major conservative political blog Hot Air, “while China is almost certainly just yanking the world’s collective chain yet again with a bit of lip service as they seek better trade arrangements.”

But Jazz Shaw has got it exactly backwards. It’s the United States that cannot be trusted to keep its commitments, because the American political system is mired in a perpetual civil war and at the moment it is the climate-change deniers who have the upper hand. Whereas the Chinese will probably keep their word, because there are no denialists in China and the government is genuinely terrified of climate change.

The Obama-Xi deal is not wonderful, but it is the first step in the right direction that the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide have taken together. Obama promised that the U.S. will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to at least 26 per cent below the 2005 level by 2025. Xi promised more vaguely that China’s emission would peak by 2030 or earlier (and, by implication, then start to decline).

That looks a bit lopsided, of course, but any deal that takes account of current realities is bound to look like that. China is still a poor country, and it is racing to grow its economy fast enough to preserve political stability. That means it has to generate a lot more energy fast.

China is installing a great deal of clean power (around half the world’s new solar energy plants last year, for example), but just to keep the lights on it has to go on building lots of fossil-fuel plants as well — and most of them burn the dirtiest fuel, coal. Official policy is driving the number of new coal-fired plants down, however, which is one reason why Xi thinks he can keep his promise that emissions will stop growing by 2030.

Obama, by contrast, presides over an economy that is already very rich. The average American citizen still consumes twice as much energy as the average Chinese, but total U.S. energy consumption stopped rising years ago. Making 26 per cent cuts in American energy use over the next 10 years is not a huge challenge; it only requires a reduction of about 2.6 per cent a year.

So the American and Chinese commitments in the new deal, while asymmetrical, are not unequal in terms of the political and economic burdens they impose.

The real difference lies in the likelihood that the two sides will stick to the deal over the next 10 to 15 years as they have promised.

China probably will.

The United States probably won’t.

The Chinese regime knows what global warming will do to the country if it is not contained. A study commissioned by the World Bank about a decade ago, but never published (quite likely at China’s insistence), concluded that if average global temperature rises by 2 degrees C, China will lose about 38 per cent of its food production.

As in all predictions of this sort, that number may be wrong by five or even 10 percentage points, but that doesn’t really matter. Even a 28 per cent loss of food production would mean semi-permanent famine in China. The regime would not survive that, and much of the growth that has been achieved by great sacrifice in the past three decades would be lost.

Beijing takes climate change very seriously. Even though the regime must also keep the economic growth going if it wishes to survive, it knows that it must start making real concessions on emissions in order to facilitate a global deal.

Xi did not set this target of capping Chinese emissions by 2030 without a great deal of discussion and debate within the regime. Having made the promise, he will keep it. So will his successors, at least so long as the Communist Party goes on ruling China. Whereas Obama will be gone in two years, and cannot bind his successors to keep his promise in any way.

Indeed, even in the past six years he has never got any legislation on climate change through the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Instead, he had to resort to issuing executive orders through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make even modest improvements like raising the fuel efficiency of U.S.-made cars.

Now the House has voted to repeal the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, which would strip even that power from him. The new Republican majority in the Senate will probably do the same. Obama could veto such a law, but all the Republicans have to do is attach it to the budget and they would set up a confrontation that would shut the U.S. government down again.

The Chinese know this, of course, but they are so desperate to get matters moving on the climate front that they are willing to take a chance that the deal will survive.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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