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China’s Hurdle to Fast Action on Climate Change

By Eduardo Porter (The New York Times) - July 2, 2014

When the Environmental Protection Agency published in June its new rules to combat carbon emissions from power plants, the American political class lit up in debates over what this meant for the country’s carbon emissions, its coal industry and its economic growth.

But a more relevant discussion was taking place some 7,000 miles away. In Beijing, He Jiankun, an academic and deputy director of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, told a conference that China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter, would for the first time put “an absolute cap” on its emissions.

His comments, and the brief flurry set off over whether they represented government policy, highlight a little-appreciated feature of the long-running, often acrimonious debate over how to slow climate change. The most pressing issue is not whether the United States will manage to wean itself from coal, or even about how quickly the American economy can reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

The most pressing issue is to what extent and under which conditions China will participate in the global effort to combat climate change. Any hopes that American commitments to cut carbon emissions will have a decisive impact on climate change rely on the assumption that China will reciprocate and deliver aggressive emission cuts of its own.

It is well known that preventing a climate catastrophe requires China’s participation: The country accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Over the next 20 years, China’s CO2 emissions will grow by an amount roughly equal to the United States’ total emissions today, according to the latest baseline forecast by the Energy Information Administration, released last year.

But the scale of China’s challenge is less well grasped. It might be best understood by slicing the growth of CO2 emissions into four driving forces: the expansion of the population, the growth in people’s incomes, the amount of energy needed to produce a dollar of income, and the amount of CO2 spewed for each unit of energy used.

Even assuming that China’s population does not grow at all over the next 30 years, that the energy efficiency of its economy increases at a faster pace than most developed and developing countries and that it manages to decarbonize its energy sources faster than pretty much anybody else, China would still be emitting a lot more carbon in 2040 than it does today, according to E.I.A. calculations.

To achieve a rate of economic growth per person of 5.7 percent a year — which is only about half the pace China experienced in the last 10 years — China’s CO2 emissions would soar to almost 15 billion tons in 2040, up from 8 billion in 2010.

China could presumably decarbonize faster. While the Chinese government has not yet imposed a cap, it has acknowledged the need to rein in rising carbon emissions. Still, improving on these forecasts will not be an easy call. At best, they will require a lot of new technology.

Alternatively, it could accept a substantially slower pace of economic growth. But considering that the average Chinese earns about one-fifth as much as the average American, the government in Beijing is unlikely to follow this path.
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Can the United States or anybody else do anything to speed China down a low-carbon path?

Heads of state from around the world will be gathering in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to start a new international climate agreement, due to be signed at a summit meeting in Paris next year.

They come off a big defeat. In 2009, the Copenhagen conference on climate change broke down to a large extent because big developing countries like China refused to accept legally binding commitments on emission cuts, which might constrain their future development.

Today, the crucial question remains the same: how to meaningfully bring aboard countries like China or India. The debate appears stuck in more or less the same place, with countries arguing over who is responsible for what. How much of the burden should be shouldered by rich countries — which grew rich while spewing carbon into the air in past decades? How much by the fast-growing developing countries — where emissions are growing fastest? Who is to blame for the carbon emitted in making the latest gadget, the developing country that made it or the developed country that bought it?

The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued in April, suggested several ways to allot responsibilities. If one starts counting in the 18th century and counts only emissions from industry and energy generation, the United States is responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gases that humanity has put into the air. China, by contrast, is responsible for 10 percent.

But if one starts counting in 1990, when the world first became aware that CO2 was a problem, and includes greenhouse gases emitted from changes in land use, the United States is responsible for only 18 percent, and China’s share rises to 15 percent. Rich and poor countries, unsurprisingly, disagree on the proper measure.

Fortunately, the United States seems to have learned from past climate negotiation mistakes. In 1997, the Senate blew up the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon emissions even before it was finalized — formally urging the White House not to sign it unless it included legal commitments by developing countries.

The Obama administration’s new rules on power plants, by contrast, are not contingent on the actions of anybody else. By unilaterally offering up American emission cuts, they might get more in return.

Countries left Copenhagen without legally binding emissions targets. But that didn’t mean nothing was achieved. Big emitters of carbon dioxide made nonbinding, voluntary offers to reduce the CO2 they pumped into the air. And though not all of these offers will be met, this voluntary, unilateral approach may offer a promising path for the future.

The United States pledged then that greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 would be 17 percent lower than in 2005, which, compared with the business-as-usual path, amounts to a reduction of one billion tons. Trevor Houser, who heads the energy practice at the Rhodium Group, an economic modeling firm, calculates that this American commitment was crucial in unlocking commitments by other countries worth two billion to five billion tons.
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“This is not a bad leverage ratio,” he said. “So we know that U.S. leadership elicits reciprocal action from other countries.”

This may be a useful precedent for future negotiations. After all, countries cannot really commit to cutting carbon emissions in the way that they commit to cut tariff barriers on trade. Forcing legally binding tariffs might discourage countries from shooting for ambitious goals. Public voluntary commitments that are attached to a rigorous and transparent monitoring process could be more effective.

It is nonetheless far from clear whether this kind of approach gets us where we want to be. Not everybody will meet their Copenhagen pledges. Japan, which unplugged its nuclear energy after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, will fall behind. So will Canada and Australia, whose new conservative governments have lost interest in the pledges of their predecessors.

The United States is only halfway there, helped along by a deep economic recession that cut into the demand for energy. And it will require more than the current rules on power plants to get there. “We need more action,” said Kate Larsen, a former climate negotiator at the State Department who now is director of Climate Change at the Rhodium Group. “It’s not in the bag.”

Most importantly, the Copenhagen commitments are nowhere near big enough. China, for instance, committed to improve its carbon efficiency but made no promise on carbon emissions. It must offer more.

American officials are confident that offering unilateral emissions cuts can persuade the Chinese to offer real commitments that might have a chance to keep global temperatures in check.

But the incentive goes only so far. For China, the existential question remains whether it can simultaneously decarbonize and grow. If it cannot do both things at once, chances are it will choose the second.

Indeed, shortly after his words toured the world, Mr. He, the official on the Chinese climate panel, issued a clarification: He was not announcing policy in Beijing. “I’m not a government official, and I don’t represent the government,” he said.

The Chinese government is still figuring out how much it can afford to participate.