Recent U.S.-China climate change accords look towards a long term solution

Thomas Toghramadjian, Columns Editor

Thursdays with ThomasInternational environmental negotiations are notoriously difficult ground. Other than the 1989 Montreal Accords regulating use of ozone-depleting substances, little broad-based progress  climate change since it was first identified as a major concern at the 1972 Stockholm Conference. Despite measures such as the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, carbon emissions have continued to grow precipitously; according to the UN, annual CO2 pollution has grown by over 50% since 1990.

The greatest reason for this growth is clear: industrialization in the developing world. China and India now place first and third, respectively, in global pollution indexes—and their release of greenhouse gasses is still growing at an alarming rate. Between 2012 and 2014, China’s carbon emissions jumped 4.2%, and India’s increased by 5.1%, according to a study by the Global Carbon Project.  Naturally, such discouraging figures from abroad have done much to blunt the appeal of domestic initiatives to cut back on fossil fuels—why, some ask, should the United States increase its own energy costs if any foreseeable climate benefits will be offset by ballooning emissions elsewhere?

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It must be hoped, in light of this, that the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 and the party at large take or begin to take a scientific and serious position on climate change.

— Columns Editor, Thomas Toghramadjian

Conversely, developing countries have claimed a “right to pollute,” of sorts, on the grounds that today’s climate problems are attributable to the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath in European countries, the United States, Canada, and Japan. Last September, Indian environmental minister Prakash Javadekar confirmed to the New York Times that his nation intends to continue prioritizing poverty eradication over environmental goals. “Who cuts?” he said. “That’s for the more developed countries.”

In a world where sluggish reaction to a near-existential issue is justified on the ground that emission reductions would constitute fruitless self-sacrifice for any nation that undertook them individually, trust and cooperation between nations—developing and developed—is clearly necessary to move forward. The recent agreement made between President Obama and Chinese resident Xi Jinping constitutes a major step forward in this direction. Under its terms, the United States pledges to reduce carbon emissions between 26% and 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, while China commits to cap its own emissions by 2030 and to derive 20% of its energy from renewable sources by that date.

Proponents of the accords hope that they will not only help curb emissions from the world’s two largest polluters, but also will provide momentum to a planned international Paris climate conference this year, where a new set of climate agreements will be negotiated.

The new accord, however, is exceptionally vulnerable. Criticized by influential Republican congressional leaders—most notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—the agreement stood little chance of being ratified by the Senate as an official treaty, or of having its provisions enforced by the legislature. Accordingly, Obama resorted to an increasingly common tactic—bypassing the legislature and relying on executive authority both to negotiate the agreement, and to enact the promises made within it.  This, however, makes the agreement susceptible to revocation by Obama’s successor in 2017. Moreover, the Republican-controlled Congress could find it possible to complicate carbon regulations by building looser EPA guidelines into vital legislation such as spending bills.

It must be hoped, in light of this, that the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 and the party at large take or begin to take a scientific and serious position on climate change. There is clear room for improvement here; a full 56% of Republican legislators have indicated that they are skeptical of human-induced climate change. This phenomenon appears to be mostly driven by the Tea Party. According to Pew, if self-identified Tea Party supporters are discounted, 61% of Republican voters believe there is conclusive evidence of global warming—as compared to 67% of the general population. Meanwhile, just 25% of Tea Partiers believe the same.

There is room for practical voices to draw attention to any economic consequences associated with fossil fuel reduction, and certainly to keep renewable energy initiatives accountable for cost-effectiveness. However, nothing more than frank acknowledgement and robust reaction to the real and present long-term dangers associated with climate change —economic, environmental, and political — will do justice to the issue. The U.S-China accords constitute such a reaction, or at least the beginnings of one. It would be tragic if they failed domestically, not on their own terms, but because of misinformation, political rivalry, and short-term thinking.