National Security & Defense

Emissions Standards: Watch the Cap, Not the Trade

(Photo Illustration: NRO)
China wins applause for doing nothing about climate change.

China’s announcement that it will implement a cap-and-trade system in 2017 has triggered widespread celebration among advocates of an international agreement on carbon-dioxide emissions. Supposedly, the announcement will build “momentum” for December’s negotiations in Paris and will pressure other countries toward action, all while fatally undermining the claim that developing nations are an obstacle to progress. But in fact, it is only the latest reminder of how unserious the arguments have always been for U.S. “leadership” as the precursor to international progress.

The China problem is that “cap-and-trade” matters for the cap, not the trade. Pundits are celebrating the proposed trading system, even though China made no new commitments to capping emissions, and its pre-existing commitments are essentially worthless. The “historic” U.S.–China agreement in 2014, for instance, entailed China’s promising to reach peak emissions by 2030 — right when a 2011 estimate from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory indicated that Chinese emissions would have peaked anyway. China’s submission to the international negotiating process is even weaker; a Bloomberg analysis found the new targets less ambitious than business-as-usual, and the trajectory they imply matches what the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change already projected 15 years ago for developing Asian economies.

Looking beyond China, the picture is worse still. An agreement will meaningfully reduce the world’s future carbon-dioxide emissions only insofar as it produces measurable and enforceable commitments from developing nations, which the IPCC has estimated will otherwise be responsible for four-fifths of emissions over this century. Yet developing nations reject the idea of making any emissions commitments, because concessions are incompatible with their economic goals.

A group of 13 “Like-Minded Developing Countries,” led by China and India, recently declared that “the Paris Agreement should not be mitigation-centric” and rejected “any obligatory review mechanism for increasing individual efforts of developing countries.” Of the seven most populous developing countries, five have refused even to comply with their own promises to submit action plans. Alongside China’s empty commitment, Indonesia submitted a plan so vague that the World Resources Institute found it nearly impossible to evaluate and concluded that it “does not allow for any accountability.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has suggested that “while the developed countries should have targets for emission cuts, developing countries should work on targets of encouragement.” His country is on course to double coal production over the next five years, bringing new capacity online 2.5 times faster than the U.S. removes its own. Indeed, the whole developing world is spurring what the National Academy of Sciences has called “A Renaissance of Coal.”

Recent negotiations have considered compensating developing nations for taking action they will not otherwise agree to. But this approach is also going nowhere.

The first problem is that developed nations will not pay. Despite committing in 2009 to raise $100 billion annually, they have made less than $10 billion in total (not annual) pledges, delivered even less, and done nothing to sell their own citizens on the wisdom of such wealth transfers. Developing nations, meanwhile, will accept the money but they will not acknowledge an obligation to reduce emissions in return. Instead, they view the funds as repayment of “ecological debt” for the developed world’s past emissions and “reparations” for natural disasters they say those emissions are now causing. In their view, the annual $100 billion is only a starting point, to be built on in Paris.

Even if developed nations wanted to pay and developing nations were prepared to reciprocate with action, the endeavor would still face the implementation challenges of any foreign-aid effort. Providing nutrition or building schools is hard enough, but here the objective is unprecedented engineering feats on an incomprehensible scale. Germany’s environment minister estimated his country’s own Energiewende (“energy revolution”) would cost more than $1 trillion over 20 years; the developing world’s population is 75 times larger than Germany’s.

Against this backdrop, enthusiasm for China’s behavior is counterproductive and irresponsible. While those who have bet the farm on international negotiations are desperate to demonstrate progress, the structure of the negotiations they have established is premised entirely on peer pressure. If superficial political maneuvers from developing nations are sufficient to earn praise, negotiations will inevitably produce an impressive political document incapable of achieving anything beyond yet another round of applause and political point-scoring.

The celebration of China represents a new low — affirmative support for a model in which U.S. action is met with developing-nation indifference.

For the U.S., this means that domestic efforts to reduce emissions remain as futile as ever. The idea that U.S. “leadership” would produce international action never made sense, as the interests of other nations suggested and their actions have proved. But the celebration of China represents a new low — affirmative support for a model in which U.S. action is met with developing-nation indifference.

At least the episode provides a useful test of seriousness for the #ActOnClimate crowd. Anyone who truly believes U.S. leadership is crucial to staving off civilizational disaster would want President Obama to criticize China’s approach sharply. Anyone concerned primarily with photo-ops and fundraising would stand next to him and President Xi, smiling for the cameras.

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