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An improvement, but unfair and ineffective

By Sadhbh O’ Neill

Twenty years after the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in 1992, there is still no comprehensive agreement that regulates emissions from all countries, or which would divide up the remaining carbon budget fairly between developed and developing countries. Indeed there is a strong case to be made that emissions budgets should be allocated to people, not countries, which would eliminate the historical entitlement of developed countries to existing high levels of emissions.

Against a background of obfuscation there is increasing speculation that what might emerge from COP-21 is a ‘bubble’ of options which offer increasing flexibility for countries to devise and meet targeted reductions. Such measures include emissions trading, technology cooperation and transfers and forestry and what are alarmingly referred to by Robert Keohane and David Victor as land-use ‘innovations’. They have also presented the advantages of a “regime complex” or a combination of overlapping and intertwining measures and mechanisms instead of a comprehensive instrument. They claim this is more “politically realistic” in a climate where nation states are still bound by the interests of ‘major constituencies’, such as major fossil consumers or producers.

Notwithstanding the unfairness and ineffectiveness of the current Kyoto and post-Kyoto arrangements, there are signs that major emitters from developing countries – China and India particularly – will be drawn into the next deal to be hammered out in Paris next December at ‘COP 21’. The US particularly has found it politically impossible to get a climate deal without the involvement of developing countries through the Senate, Although President Obama has found renewed zeal on the issue it is not on the agenda for the upcoming Presidential elections. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said his first priority on election would be to “do whatever I can to get the Environmental Protection Agency reined in”, he said, referring to the agency’s proposed regulations to limit carbon pollution from power plants. Climate-change sceptic James Inhofe now heads the Senate’s environment panel, Presidential candidate Ted Cruz and even establishment-backed candidates like former Florida governor Jeb Bush, deny climate change.

Bush had previously asserted that the climate may be warming and, as governor of a state regarded as the hotbed for hurricanes and coastal erosion, fought against drilling off the Florida coast and launched a massive Everglades restoration project.

These attitudes underpin appeals for flexibility – even if they undermine the comprehensive regime that environmentalists have been campaigning for through the UNFCCC. So, the US recently signed a climate deal with China directly, whereby both parties entered a bilateral political agreement, outside of the UNFCCC process, to stabilise and reduce emissions according to an (arbitrary) timetable consistent with their national interests:

“The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%. China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030. Both sides intend to continue to work to increase ambition over time.’ (US – China Joint Announcement on Climate Change, November 2014)”

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Chart 1: CO2 annual emission rates for China Courtesy of Raymond T. Pierrehumbert

This agreement signals an important shift in US policy though the Obama administration has committed itself to working also towards a binding agreement in Paris at COP-21. While the targets for the US appear more onerous than the Chinese objective of merely stabilising emissions in 2030, the reality is that US emissions have not grown since 2005, largely due to the shift from coal and oil to gas, and Chinese emissions are increasing at a perilous rate of about 7% per annum. Key to the success of this deal will be the degree to which China acts before 2030 to peak and reduce its emissions, and the degree to which the US can deliver the cuts it has promised in the face of a return to moderate economic growth. While the commitments are phrased very differently for the US and China, the key point is that China will have to get its emissions off the exponential track before 2030.

According to analyst Raymond Pierrehumbert, the trick is to both guess – and influence – the point at which China will peak its emissions. In principle, the US-China deal does not specify at what point China should peak its emissions. In an article for Slate Magazine, Pierrehumbert argues:

‘Translating this commitment into quantitative implications for cumulative carbon involves a lot of guesswork as to how China will go about fulfilling its commitment, because the agreement does not spell out the value at which emissions will peak. A cynic would say that China could just increase its growth rate to, say, 10 percent and peak at an enormous value in 2030, giving itself plenty of wiggle room to hold emissions constant or decrease them thereafter. If this is really China’s intent, then the new agreement is largely meaningless. But let us suppose instead that China’s commitment was taken in good faith. A minimum good-faith fulfilment would be to continue growing at 7 percent up to 2030 and then hold emissions constant thereafter. This scenario is shown in the middle (black) curve of Figure 1. In terms of cumulative carbon, that would mean that China emits another roughly 70 gigatons out to 2030, and holding emissions constant thereafter, emits a further 86 gigatons between 2030 and 2060. Without the agreement, China’s emissions scenario would look like the upper (red) curve, and China would emit a further 790 gigatons in the latter period, which would be more than enough to bring the world over the trillion-ton limit regardless of what anybody else did. So yes, getting China off the exponential curve is a very, very big deal indeed.’

The analysis above highlights the difficulties in securing an effective global regime for emissions reduction in a context where developing countries with large populations – such as China –  are bent on increasing standards of living consistent with 1st World energy use. It is entirely possible that a regime complex may emerge at COP-21, and it may well be effective in reducing emissions and weaning developed countries gradually off fossil energy. However, the problem is that it will offer no guarantees that emissions will be reduced in a manner which transfers the global wealth that has been captured by rich countries as a result of their emissions since the industrial revolution, or that developing countries will be appropriately compensated for the emissions they have not been able-  and now will not be allowed – to make. Indeed, it is also plausible that the model proposed by Robert Keohane and David Victor for a ‘regime complex’ will permit extraction of fossil energy in developing countries to continue but for the benefit of existing major energy consumers i.e. a continuation but gradual contraction of the neo-liberal model without the concomitant ‘convergence’ of developing countries.

The US-China deal sits well into a political framework where high historical emitters are not penalised for past excesses and are able to specify when and how they reduce their emissions in a manner which does not damage their economies. From a political viewpoint this amounts to a victory for the George W Bush position at the expense of the global commons and  future
generations. •