Thursday, June 27, 2013

Obama's Climate Action Plan: How Do You Say "Yawn" in Chinese?

Barack Obama's "U.S. National Climate Action Plan" -- announced two days ago -- is a high-wire act.

People seem pretty sanguine about some aspects of the plan;  others verge on unknown territory. And the stakes in convincing people around the world that the United States is serious couldn't be higher.

Obama and Climate: the heat is on . . . .

Key goals are the percentage reductions in greenhouse gas reduction that Obama is targeting:
* 2020 target: emissions reductions of 17% below 2005 levels

* 2050 target: emissions reductions of 80% below 2005 levels
(See Key Features of Obama's Climate Plan).

Actual 2013 emissions, in fact, already stand 11 percent below 2005 levels -- though a big factor in that drop is thought to be a slowing U.S. economy. It is hoped that that the economic slowing won't continue forever, but those numbers still seem to suggest to some that the 2020 target of a 17% reduction is within the realm of possibility. (See At Last, an Action Plan on Climate.)

As for the 2050 target: who knows? Between 17% and 80% stands an enormous chasm.

The Obama plan also commits the United States "to expand major new and existing international initiatives, including bilateral initiatives with China, India, and other major emitting countries," and it is perhaps these initiatives that are the "dog" that the "tail" of the power plant measures are intended to wag.

The U.S. idea seems to be, "We'll show a good faith effort to clean up our act, and then lean on China to cut emissions. After all, that's where the really big gains are to be made!"

2008 Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil Fuel Combustion and some
Industrial Processes (million metric tons of CO2)
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

In my opinion, Obama and the United States have badly miscalculated what's at stake in trying to induce China to play a significant role in addressing the climate crisis.

The problem, as I see it, is that China is disinclined to be impressed by small improvements by what it perceives as a "mature" U.S. economy. The Chinese thinking, as I understand it, goes something like this: "You had your shot at industrializing; your economy is mature and so, yes, of course you are now in a position to scale back on carbon output. But we're still in the very early stages of our industrialization."

(Look at the numbers for yourself. Put yourself in China's shoes. What would you be thinking?)

Source: Greenfudge, CO2 emissions by country

In fact, China has a stated coal of 40-45% reductions in "carbon intensity" by 2020. The "carbon intensity" measure adjusts the target based on GDP growth. (Read more about the China carbon goal here.)

So, to be blunt, the United States is going to have to doing something really shocking to get China's attention. Like: go on a crash program to cut carbon emissions to zero in a decade (and, somehow, to achieve a sort of "economic invincibility" -- whatever that means -- in the process).

In other words, half measures are not going to make the grade. The Earth is in the balance, and what happens depends on what China and the United States decide together.

MORE: #chinaEARTHusa - Radical Change? or Planetocide?

Related posts

It has been announced that China and the U.S. will hold a top leadership meeting at the beginning of June. If the past is any indication, we will get a lot of cautious, lukewarm pronouncements about cooperation that don't begin to address the reality. It's time for activists in the U.S. and China to join hands and start to militate for radical change. We need a zero-carbon USA and a zero-carbon China. Anything less is planetocide.

(See #chinaEARTHusa - Radical Change? or Planetocide? )

China would like nothing better than to cut its carbon emissions. By all means, let the U.S. demonstrate how this can be accomplished -- while maintaining standards of living at the same time, if you please --  and China can be counted on follow the U.S. lead (as in so many other areas of development).

(See Obama's Tribute Mission to China )  

Oil companies are valued by the market based on their reserves. The problem with this approach is that the total reserves claimed by the oil companies is FIVE TIMES what can possibly be burned without driving up the temperature of the atmosphere up by a catastrophic amount and, as McKibben puts it, "breaking the planet." How can the value of oil companies be a function of reserves that can never be used?

(See The REALLY Big Short: The Jig is Up with Oil Companies)