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Sunday 16 November 2014

Is the world warming ...to climate change?

US and China reach Climate Accord after months of talks - New York Times - 2014/11/12

US and China Announce a Huge Deal on Climate, to Everyone’s Surprise  - Wired - 2014/11 

The Faux US-China Climate Deal - The Diplomat - 2014/11/12

U.S. and China Strike Historic Climate Change Deal - NBC News - 2014/11

Certainly the surprise joint announcement of an agreement on Climate Change by the worlds largest CO2 emitters grabbed the headlines at the end of APEC.

This is no doubt a significant recognition by world's two largest economies that they need to be seen to be acting on climate change. The media has lapped it up, with incessant coverage. As always there is a large disparity in interpretations depending on one's leanings. 

What does this announcement really mean ?

Given the brief statements and lack of binding agreements, it is appropriately in fact a statement of direction from these leaders. 

Even without looking at the contents of the announcement we can welcome some important 'soft benefits' from the announcement and the way it was made. It shows close cooperation between the two leading nations of the world on a problem which is widely accepted as one of our major challenges as we face the future.

It is encouraging the the US and China, often seen as rivals in many spheres, could work together, and in secret, for so long. 

Moreover by timing the announcement well ahead of next year's climate summit they have started the ball rolling, encouraging other nations to consider their commitments. By doing so it is more likely that the Paris meeting will yield more ambitious 'commitments'.

With regard to the commitments themselves, it is not so positive.

The table below summarises each party's updated target compared to their prior position at the Copenhagen conference .

APEC announcement Copenhagen target Change in emissions
China Peak emissions in 2030, 20% in non-fossil fuels by 2030 40-45% reduction in carbon intensity none committed
U.S. 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 “17% below 2005 by 2020 and 42% below 2005 by 2030”. This is ~ 30% below 2005 levels by 2025 on a straight line basis no real change

What this announcement does not mean

As the gloss is wearing off the announcement surprise, we are starting to hear many misgivings(eg see Matt Moran's "Will Obama's climate surprise deliver a global deal?").

In the past these types of 'commitments' have not achieved their stated emission cut targets. Lomborg, (Kyoto deja vu as Paris becomes Copenhagen) has reviewed some of the Kyoto results showing that many countries not only failed to achieve their Kyoto promised cuts, but ended up with increases in emissions. In fact this was true for the US, and who knows with a Republican congress and potentially a Republican president, the current targets may have the same fate. China is in a better position however as it has another 16 years before it fails its commitment.

What we cannot expect from these announcements is also significant. 

Don't expect
  • a dramatic decrease in emissions any time soon, from either of the two leading CO2 emitters
  • a dramatic decrease in global emission due to these announcements
  • any decrease in emissions than would have been achieved without the announcement
So despite the hyperbole, in large part this is business as usual.

The real benefit is a glimpse of a potentially new spirit of cooperation between the two rival superpowers. 

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