A Gentleman’s Agreement: US and Chinese Emissions Promises

7 Dec

In the past two weeks the United States and China have released separate plans for reducing their carbon emissions. Despite the fanfare that greeted the announcements, serious doubts have already been voiced about the combined effort. Put simply, is it going to be enough? Already worrying signs abound that these plans are too little, too late.

China led off last week with an ambitious plan to reduce emissions per unit GDP by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020. This announcement was soon followed by a pledge from the Obama administration to cut emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% by 2050. Although Obama admitted that climate change has been “neglected for too long,” neither his plan nor the Chinese explicitly addresses how these reductions will be achieved, financially or otherwise. Nor has either country given details regarding monitoring, enforcement or verification. Neither will submit to an international body analogous to the IAEA, and without external monitoring, we are left to take both countries at their word. In the face of strenuous domestic pressure, it is not hard to imagine these promises being moderated—or scrapped altogether.

Assuming, however, that Obama and Hu Jintao can make good on their promises, the larger question must be whether they are enough. Several teams of climatologists have already raised doubts about whether this plan, combined with existing European commitments, would hold temperature rise to 2° Celsius, beyond which catastrophic climatic events will become more common. One conclusions is that, “The pledges made so far translate into around 3 °C warming by 2100,” a worryingly high number. At the Climate Action Tracker, the conclusion was stark: “The pledges on the table will not halt emissions growth before 2040, let alone by 2015 as indicated by the IPCC and are far from halving emissions by 2050, as has been called for by the G8.”

All of this assumes Obama will be able to push through legislation needed to reach the 17% goal. He already faces strenuous opposition in Congress over worries about Europe’s commitment to a viable carbon market and to potential impacts on industry. Already there are calls to use the estimated $646 billion in cap-and-trade revenues to offset utility hikes. Even if these plans pass the legislature, will they be enough?

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