Politics & Policy

The Key Charade of the Paris Agreement

From left: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Xinping, and President Obama at a Paris agreement ratification ceremony, September 2016. (Photo: How Hwee Young/Pool/Reuters)
While other countries made emissions pledges that could be met without trying, Obama committed the U.S. to an aggressive, costly climate-change agenda.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following piece originally appeared in City Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.

Even before President Trump had completed his announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change, howls of disbelief and outrage went up from proponents of the agreement. But the critical dynamic underlying the 2015 Accord, willfully ignored by its advocates, is that major developing countries offered “commitments” for emissions reduction that only mirrored their economies’ existing trajectories. Thus, for instance, China committed to reaching peak emissions by 2030 — in line with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s prior analysis. India committed to improving its emissions per unit of GDP — at a rate slower than that metric was already improving. President Obama, meanwhile, pledged America to concrete and aggressive emissions cuts that would require genuine and costly change.

As I wrote in NATIONAL REVIEW at the conclusion of the Paris conference in December 2015:

The full scope of the catastrophe will emerge only in the years to come. One of the agreement’s few binding provisions is a requirement for countries to gather and review their commitments and their adherence to them every five years. Given the caliber of the pledges, that promise of review has little value; countries that promised to proceed on their existing trajectories will pass with flying colors. But the United States, whose commitments far exceed what even the aggressive Obama agenda is expected to produce, will be the nation off track.

Sure enough, a recent headline from Inside Climate News blares, “China, India to Reach Climate Goals Years Early, as U.S. Likely to Fall Far Short.” That is, China and India are reaching the “goal” of proceeding along their unaltered course, while the U.S. is “falling short” of a very high bar.

One might think this prima facie evidence of the agreement’s folly, but Jonathan Chait of New York magazine instead links to it as proof that the Right’s criticism of Paris “has proven incontrovertibly false.” Citing data from Climate Action Tracker, he avers that “India, which had promised to reduce the emissions intensity of its economy by 33–35 percent by 2030, is now on track to reduce it by 42–45 percent by that date. China promised its total emissions would peak by 2030 — an ambitious goal for a rapidly industrializing economy. It is running at least a decade ahead of that goal.” Chait concludes, “The factual predicate upon which the American right based its opposition to Paris has melted away beneath its feet.”

However, Climate Action Tracker’s own analysis of India’s Paris commitment in December 2015 determined, “According to our analysis, with the policies it already has in place, India will achieve an emissions intensity reduction of around 41.5% below 2005 levels by 2030.” India committed to less than business-as-usual, has proceeded with business-as-usual, and now wins applause from Chait for beating its worthless commitment. It’s easy to slim down to 180 pounds, if you weigh 175 to begin with.

If nations are to hold one another accountable for progress on greenhouse-gas emissions, surely they must agree on a starting point from which to progress.

Likewise, in December 2015, it was Climate Action Tracker’s view that “under a scenario with currently implemented policies, Chinese CO2 emissions are likely to peak around 2025.” The New York Times reports that Chinese emissions may have peaked in 2014, just as the nation’s leaders were formulating their international pledge. Is it more likely that the Chinese inadvertently made a pledge they could meet without trying, or that Chait has fallen for a pledge that was formulated such that it would have to be met?

The giveaway for the Paris charade is the refusal to set baselines. If nations are to hold one another accountable for progress on greenhouse-gas emissions, surely they must agree on a starting point from which to progress. Yet the framework for Paris pointedly omitted this requirement. Countries could calculate their own baselines however they chose, or provide none at all. Now, per Chait, the pledges have themselves become baselines, and each country receives applause or condemnation in inverse proportion to its seriousness.

Even failing on one’s commitment is acceptable, so long as the right things get said. Carbon Market Watch reports that “despite all of the fanfare that went on at the time, it seems that there are currently only three European Union countries pursuing climate policies that put them in line with the agreements made at the Paris Climate Change Talks.” Angela Merkel said that she finds the G7’s discussion of climate change “very difficult,” but not because her nation’s emissions have risen the last two years. Her difficulty arises from those ugly Americans’ unwillingness to keep up appearances.

Later this week, we will be treated to the spectacle of “a statement backed by all 28 EU states, [in which] the European Union and China will commit to full implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement” — undoubtedly accompanied by lamentations that the United States has disrupted the charade by walking off stage. How the world misses President Obama’s enthusiasm for a debating society that delivers no substantive action, or even a useful framework for assessing results, only a forum for bashing America. Such nerve, our nation has, to excuse itself from that pastime.

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