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The US/China Climate Pact: a Requiem for the Kyoto Treaty


I suppose the fact that I can still be amazed at the magnitude of botched mainstream misreporting is a sign that I still retain a sense of childlike wonder.

A HUGE deal is being made out of the US-China climate change agreement.  The hoopla is ludicrous.  The U.S. makes a statement about its determination to achieve non-binding targets, the PRC talks about its determination to achieve non-binding targets.

At least the Chinese are promising to do something they’re already planning to do and capable of doing: peaking CO2 emissions by 2030.  Going green and, in particular, dealing with the horrific smog problems in Beijing and other major Chinese cities is a key element in the social and political pact the CCP wants to make with China’s urban middle class, so the PRC, even if it is ready to see the rest of the planet go to hell, has strong domestic political imperatives driving its greenhouse gas policies.

As for the U.S. goal–26%-28% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2025–it’s strictly voluntary and subject to the tender mercies of the now Republican-controlled Congress.

What happens when you combine the aspirations of the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases?

Well, if the U.S. lives up to its commitments, it might be able to shave off 2 trillion tons from its annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.  At the same date, the PRC will add around 5 trillion tons per annum.



The net result is not victory; it’s probably the recipe for a global temperature rise of 4 degrees which is much higher than the 2 degree rise that everybody said would be very, very bad.

The IPCC finds that to avoid more than 2 degrees of warming, global emissions must fall by an average of 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This requires urgent action: Our energy systems will take decades to fully decarbonize, given the time it takes for power plants and vehicle fleets to turnover, enabling a switch to low-carbon alternatives.

The optimistic assumption is that the United States will be able to halve its 1990 levels by 2050.  For the PRC, a similar goal would involve peaking CO2 emissions in 2030…and then cutting them 90% to get back down 50% below 1990 levels.  I don’t see that happening.  And there’s India.

In 2050, I don’t think we’ll be partying like it’s “half of 1990″, CO2-wise.  Might look more like this:


Assuming we f*ck up and average global temps rise 4 degrees over the baseline,  the poorer, at risk nations take it in the neck.  The richer nations devote their resources to “adaptation” (dealing with the local consequences of climate change) while giving lip service to “mitigation” (trying to achieve a global remedy for the climate problem).

It’s a bitter pill, so there’s a lot of sugar-coating going on.

Even as China’s emissions climb as a matter of absolute tonnage released, it is praised for “reducing its carbon intensity” i.e. the amount of carbon reduced per unit of GDP.

As for President Obama, enviros rightfully regard him as a leader genuinely concerned about the environment, fighting the forces of climate change evil i.e. the Republicans and their buddies in the energy industry, and struggling to move climate change legislation forward one painful step at a time.

So President Obama has gained outsized kudos for a rather puny deal with China.  Hopefully, bigger things down the road.  Maybe another non-binding deal with India.  Clap harder for Tinkerbell!

A less attractive side of the climate change debate is the political cover provided to President Obama for his most questionable and arguably catastrophic climate change gambit: the decision to kill Kyoto i.e. gut the Kyoto Treaty…and hope that something better might get cobbled together in an atmosphere of heightened urgency before it was Too Late.

Kyoto mandated legally-binding emissions caps for the “Annex I” industrialized nations.  It was unratifiable in the United States due to Republican resistance and because its carve-out gave “Annex II” countries, particularly China but also India, a now indefensible pass on emissions targets on “developing nation” grounds.

Al Gore tells us that back in 2009 the PRC offered to President Obama to accept binding caps on its greenhouse gas emissions.  The carrot for China would presumably be a sizable wealth transfer to the PRC from the industrialized world as the ability to achieve emissions goals was monetized through carbon trading enabled by national “cap and trade” legislation in the major industrialized countries.

Maybe the Chinese offer was bullsh*t, but we never got a chance to find out.  By the time the critical Copenhagen climate change conference rolled around end-2009, President Obama had already squandered his political capital and Senate supermajority in his grinding quest for health care reform and his energy legislation was DOA.

The United States showed up at Copenhagen with the conviction that Kyoto had to go, that the United States, even though it had no prospect of passing binding domestic legislation, would claim to have enough leadership juice to create a viable successor system…and the PRC would be the designated fall guy in the necessary but politically wrenching drama of knocking off Kyoto (and spurning the needs and moral claims of the at-risk nations that had not contributed significantly to global warming but would bear the brunt of its effects, and were a major focus of the Kyoto treaty).

I harbor the suspicion that the United States deliberately framed its monitoring, review, and verification requirements on China to be as intrusive and repellent as possible—and dishonestly tied $100 billion annually of adaptation relief for poor at-risk countries (that the United States had no ability to fund) to Chinese acceptance– so that the PRC would be sure to reject them.

Mission accomplished, at least for the West.

The focus was successfully drawn away from the United States and its inability to pass cap-and-trade legislation, the cornerstone of any Kyoto-style effort, and lay the political onus for the intense rancor at Copenhagen on (in the words of Australian PM Howard) the “ratf*cking” Chinese.

In order to smooth the path for President Obama, some enviros now employ the bombastic statement that “Kyoto is dead”.  Indeed, the United States government, through its climate change thug-in-chief, Todd Stern, has done its level best, having persuaded a significant number of countries to drop out so that the only enthusiastic major player is the European Union and Kyoto now only governs 15% of global emissions.

Even so, Kyoto, largely because of the unwillingness of the BASIC block (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) to abandon the pact (and the developing world) and provide political cover for the United States, had struggled on.

In 2012, Kyoto was extended to 2020, and a meeting planned for Paris in 2015 to try to get the treaty and a global response to climate change on a viable track.

The significance of the US-China agreement, and why I’m assuming it is trumpeted with such desperate enthusiasm in the US is that the PRC, by bilaterally coming to climate change terms with the United States, has simultaneously spurned the Kyoto Treaty, the BASIC bloc, and the at-risk nations (known as the G-77 bloc).

So, instead of demanding that the United States help reform the binding Kyoto regime, the PRC has now acquiesced in the US strategy of Kyoto destruction without making provisions for a binding successor agreement.

Whatever the PRC does or does not do on climate change, the bilateral meeting of the minds with President Obama is a rather momentous political step for the PRC and one is invited to wonder what luscious quid pro quo the United States offered in return.

I’ve written extensively on the US-China climate change gyrations since Copenhagen.  This piece at China Matters provides a solid introduction to the issues and links for further reading, as well as a vigorous rip on Hillary Clinton, whose politically-driven vision of diplomacy–and the cynical “We must destroy the village in order to save it” approach to climate change policy– I see at the heart of the problem.

Population vs. CO2 emission graph from

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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