Our Climate Pact With China, Ctd

Jack Goldsmith calls the emissions reductions “aspirational”:

US China Emissions[T]he two sides do not promise to, or state that they will, reduce emissions by a certain amount. Rather, they state only that they intend to achieve emissions reductions and to make best efforts in so doing.  Whether and how the goals expressed in these intentions will be reached is left unaddressed, and one nation’s intention is not in any way tied to the other’s.  Nor would it be a violation of the “announcement” if either side’s best efforts fail to achieve the intended targets.  As we have seen with a lot with climate change aspirations, intentions are easy to state, and they change over time.  The key point is that this document in no way locks in the current intentions.  In fact it creates no obligations whatsoever, not even soft ones (except that, in a different place, both sides “commit” to “reaching an ambitious … agreement” next year, an empty commitment).  It is no accident that the document is called an “announcement” and not a treaty or pledge or even an agreement.

Tyler Cowen also provides a reality check:

First, China is notorious for making announcements about air pollution and then not implementing them.

This is only partially a matter of lying, in part the government literally does not have the ability to keep its word.  They have a great deal of coal capacity coming on-line and they can’t just turn that switch off.  They’re also driving more cars, too.

Second, China falsifies estimates of the current level of air pollution, so as to make it look like the problem is improving when it is not.  Worse yet, during the APEC summit the Chinese government blocked the more or less correct estimates coming from U.S. Embassy data, which are usually transmitted through an app.  A nice first step to the “deal” with the United States would have been to allow publication (through the app) of the correct numbers.  But they didn’t.  What does that say about what one might call…”the monitoring end”…of this new deal?

Chris Mooney is more upbeat:

[T]he experts underscore that this deal has a symbolic value that goes far beyond the literal emissions cuts (or caps) that have now been pledged, precisely because the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters have now both come to the table. If the agreement lays the groundwork for a broader global agreement — one that encompasses other major emitters like India, Japan, and Russia — then that is the real payoff. That agreement could happen in Paris in late 2015, when the nations of the world gather to try to achieve a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

What Michael Levi will be keeping an eye on:

I wouldn’t expect much more negotiation over either U.S. or Chinese targets, even though European leaders may want to have a discussion. Over the next year, rather than focus on any haggling over emissions numbers, it will be worth watching three things. What will the remaining details of the Chinese plan look like? How will the U.S. goals be received politically – and could they spook a Congress currently considering how much to try to interfere with pending EPA regulations? And, perhaps most important, could this display of pragmatic U.S.-China diplomatic cooperation be a sign of more to come in international climate change diplomacy – which will need to go well beyond target-setting – over the coming year?

Scott Moore reads the fine print:

Other areas covered by the agreement include new partnerships linking water scarcity and sustainable energy, a demonstration project for carbon capture and storage (CCS), and a sustainable cities initiative. Integrating energy and water issues promises to expand U.S. – China climate cooperation from an almost exclusive focus on emissions mitigation to one that also helps both countries adapt to climate change. Greater cooperation on CCS, meanwhile, will help develop a technology that is needed to help wean the world off fossil fuels by storing carbon dioxide deep underground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.  The sustainable cities initiative, finally, builds on dynamic sub-national action on climate change in both the United States and China, with the leaders of places as diverse as New York and Jiangsu Province pledging to work together to reduce emissions.  Washington must devote serious resources to ensure that these initiatives fulfill their promise.

Max Fisher puts the announcement in context:

[I]t’s a very promising precedent of the two countries working together as global leaders on difficult issues. Over the next century, the US and China are going to face many, many more global issues on which they disagree, but on which they will both be better off if they cooperate. Indeed, the world as a whole is better served by Chinese and American cooperation and joint leadership. That’s why even Chinese state-run media is trumpeting the climate deal as “highlight[ing] a new type of major-country relations.”

But Alexa Olesen finds that China is downplaying the news at home:

Deborah Seligsohn, an expert on the Chinese environment at the University of California San Diego, told FP that Chinese leaders “tend not to enthuse,” so that may in part explain Xi’s reserve. But she also said that Beijing is under fire domestically for its unsuccessful efforts to curb local air pollution, noting that people were furious that authorities managed to clear the air for the visiting APEC dignitaries but can’t do it on a daily basis for their own citizens. ” There may be worries that focusing on climate change rather than air pollution doesn’t meet the public’s main concerns,” Seligsohn said via email.

And Michael Grunwald keeps focused on the role technology must play:

You don’t see the U.S. or China ditching oil yet, because when it comes to transportation, there’s nothing cost-competitive with oil yet. Electric vehicles are getting cheaper, and their sales are doubling every year, but internal combustion engines still rule. No international agreement will change that—and until there are viable alternatives to oil, international agreements that try to change that by fiat will end up being ignored. Ultimately, it’s unrealistic to expect developing countries or developed countries to ignore the short-term economic interests of their people, even when medium-term environmental disaster looms.

After all, the end of the Stone Age had nothing to do with stones at all. It ended when the world found stuff it liked better. It ended when better technology could do the same things more efficiently. Governments can do a lot to promote cheaper alternatives to fossil fuels, but the Fossil Fuel Age won’t end until they’re here.

Everything else is just words.

Earlier Dish on the agreement here.

(Chart from Philip Bump)