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What Obama's Emissions Announcement With China Really Means

11/18/2014 05:16 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST

Environmentalists received an early Christmas present on Nov. 12, when President Barack Obama and China's President Xi Jinping issued a "joint announcement" over the control of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States and China. The announcement ostensibly establishes a hard target for China's GHG emission trajectory that is to peak "around" 2030, and decline thereafter, while doubling their use of non-fossil fuel energy. The U.S., by contrast, has announced that it will reduce its GHG emissions by 26-28 per cent of the 2005 level by 2025. Other components of the agreement involve joint research efforts on renewable fuels, an urban planning initiative, and promoting trade in "green goods."

Climate warriors such as U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) are spinning like mad, with the main refrain being that the dreaded "deniers" have lost the China card, and that nobody can say that they won't act until China acts anymore. That's so much nonsense -- this announcement changes virtually nothing in terms of the global dynamic on GHG controls. In fact, in many ways, it simply locks in the status quo: China gets to emit as much as it wants for the next 15 years, while the U.S. continues its regulatory crusade to cut U.S. carbon emissions. There's no stipulated ceiling for Chinese emissions -- the sky is the limit until 2030. And President Obama can no more bind future administrations than prior presidents could bind his. This is particularly true given his lame duck status and hostile Congress. The only thing that's likely to come of this agreement is pressure on other countries -- such as Canada -- to match the U.S. commitment, whether it's feasible given their economies or not, and whether it actually influences the climate or not.

What people are proclaiming "historical" is that China has agreed to eventually reach an emissions peak that they were already expecting to reach. It was reported in 2012 that China was on track for a GHG emission peak in 2030. And while some are arguing that the U.S. agreement represents much more aggressive reduction targets, Ethan Zindler, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests that "The commitment on the U.S. side is a summation of a variety of commitments that have already been made." Zindler here is referring to the stringent vehicle fuel economy standards that were implemented or are pending in the U.S. (and emulated here), along with pending rules on power plant emissions proposed by the U.S. EPA.

The announcement makes China look good, and Obama look relevant in advance of Paris negotiations over a binding global carbon treaty in 2015, but the odds of such a treaty coming to pass are between slim and none, partly because the new U.S.-China deal reaffirms the idea that has torpedoed every other attempt to forge a treaty. The new agreement reaffirms the "principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances." This is code for "transfer vast quantities of wealth to developing countries." That hasn't happened since the principle was enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and almost certainly is never going to happen. There's also the little fact that the U.S. Congress is now in the hands of the Republicans, who are never going to ratify an international climate change treaty.

What does this mean for Canada? First and foremost, it means a reinvigorated green crusade for renewables, which can only harm Canada's economy, as we showed when Ontario took this path. In addition, the green movement will likely use this agreement to push for other harmful policies such as a national carbon tax. The U.S.-China agreement will also reinvigorate green opposition to Canadian fossil-fuel production of all sorts: the no coal, no gas, and especially the no oil sands people will be using the new announcement as a cudgel with which to demonize anyone who opposes them.

Environmentalists may have gotten an early Christmas present from uncles Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, but energy users around the world just got a giant lump of coal in their stockings, as they face a world of more costly, more constrained energy. Oh, and the benefits? Climate scientists are already observing that the announced actions won't do much to offset climate change.

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