When the United States and China announced a surprise carbon-emissions deal, the environmental Left squealed in delight. Al Gore declared it “groundbreaking progress from the world’s largest polluter” (i.e., China), while John Kerry patted himself on the back in the New York Times, gushing about how “the world’s most consequential relationship has just produced something of great consequence in the fight against climate change.”
Despite the extraordinary fanfare, there’s abundant reason for skepticism. Though the announcement is politically expedient for both Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, China almost certainly won’t take significant steps to reduce carbon emissions.
That’s because the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist party’s government rests squarely on economic development. Energy — often produced by dirty coal — allows that economic development to occur, lifting millions out of hand-to-mouth poverty.
But China remains a developing country, and it will stay that way for quite some time. In 2010, the World Bank estimated that more than one Chinese person in five survives on less than $2 a day, using 2005 international prices. And just a few months ago, Chinese premier Li Keqiang estimated that 200 million Chinese continue to live on $1.25 a day or less.
“The biggest difficulty is that the demand [for energy] will still be there,” Wang Yi, a climate-change expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the New York Times. “Urbanization won’t be completed, industrialization won’t be over and there will still be these large regional disparities. The eastern regions will be quite developed, but there will still be poverty in the center and west.”
Also consider 2012 estimates from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences suggesting that the number of “mass incidents” — CCP-speak for protests — regularly exceeds 100,000 a year. Much of the unrest centers on economic dissatisfaction. And many of the most noteworthy incidents, including a knifing at the Kunming train station and a car explosion at Tiananmen Square, occurred or originated in the impoverished central and western regions.
China’s ruling class cares far less about carbon emissions — or about the international community’s opinion, for that matter — than it does about maintaining its chokehold on power. So don’t expect it to gamble economic progress on lofty environmental goals.
At the same time, Chinese frustration with constant smog, heavy pollution, and environmental recklessness is also growing, so Beijing benefits politically from agreeing to far-off carbon-emissions reductions. The announcement gives the illusion that China’s official environmental policy is gradually improving.
In reality, Beijing hasn’t actually agreed to much: It will try to “stop increasing” carbon emissions by 2030 — which is a slanted way of saying its emissions will continue to grow for another 16 years — and derive 20 percent of its energy from renewables by then, up from about 10 percent now. Though these goals may be codified into Chinese law, the CCP does not have a reputation for respecting the rule of law. And the United States and the international community won’t have any way of enforcing these goals. No wonder Reuters called it a “largely symbolic plan.”
The Obama administration and its allies in Congress surely know all of this, but they don’t care. The deal, realistic or not, offers a valuable talking point for ramming through radical environmental policy.
Critics of the president’s environmental policies have noted that even the most stringent emissions reductions from the First World won’t have much of an impact unless the developing world also cuts back. The environmental Left is marketing the new U.S.–China deal as a way to eliminate that objection and plow forward with the president’s hardline proposals for carbon regulations.
“Now there is no longer an excuse for Congress to block action on climate change,” Senator Barbara Boxer said in today’s New York Times. “The biggest carbon polluter on our planet, China, has agreed to cut back on dangerous emissions, and now we should make sure all countries do their part because this is a threat to the people that we all represent.”
Boxer ignores the myriad other valid objections to the Obama administration’s proposed regulations, which seek to cut carbon emissions 30 percent from their 2005 levels by 2030. In reality, it’s bad policy because, despite enormous economic cost, it would yield very few environmental benefits.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has estimated that these rules would cost $51 billion, as well as 224,000 jobs, every year between now and 2030. And a recent NERA Economic Consulting study puts the cost even higher — as much as $73 billion a year — while also predicting double-digit price hikes on utility bills in all but seven states. Notably, the EPA failed to mention what such stringent policies would accomplish: They’d cut global temperatures by less than two-hundredths of a degree Fahrenheit.
In other words, these costly regulations are largely symbolic — as is the U.S.–China emissions deal. Both underscore how fundamentally divorced from reality the president’s climate-change aspirations really are.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.