Thursday, November 13, 2014

How Good Is The New Emissions Deal with China?

  • President Obama's emissions deal with China sets an ambitious target for US CO2 cuts while leaving substantial headroom for emissions growth in China. 
  • It will likely compound his problems, domestically, but could have significant influence on upcoming international climate negotiations.
Only an event like Tuesday's agreement between President Obama and his Chinese counterpart to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the two countries could top the unexpected scramble in the US Senate to pass a Keystone XL pipeline bill as the big energy story of the week. The significance of the climate deal is open to interpretation, from both international and US political perspectives. Before exploring those, we should examine its consequences.

The White House announced that in exchange for the US agreeing to reduce "net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025", China would undertake to cap its GHG emissions by "around 2030." It also announced plans to step up a number of cooperative efforts with China in this area, including joint R&D and a jointly funded public/private carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project in China. What does all this mean in terms of US emissions?

We need to start with the 2012 baseline in which net US emissions were already nearly 11% below 2005 levels. The current Annual Energy Outlook of the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), assuming the laws and regulations in force at the time it was produced, projects that US energy-related CO2 emissions will increase by 236 million metric tons (MT) by 2025, compared to 2012, leaving us at roughly 7% under 2005. Emissions from transportation would shrink, while those from industry would rise as the US economy grows by an expected 2.4% per year.

As I understand it that EIA forecast doesn't include the emissions that the EPA's "Clean Power Plan" for existing power plants would be expected to save if fully implemented. EPA targets reducing CO2 emissions from the US electricity sector--accounting for 39% of net emissions in 2005--by 25% by 2020 and 30% by 2030, compared to 2005. That would shave around 460 million MT from the EIA figure for 2025, getting us to nearly 15% below 2005. The additional savings to reach 26% below 2005 are thus in the neighborhood of 700 million MT per year by 2025. To put that in perspective, it's equivalent to the 2012 CO2 emissions from combustion in the entire US industrial sector, and exceeds total emissions of methane from all sectors, including agriculture, oil & gas, and landfills.

So unless I've done my sums wrong, or misinterpreted the government's data, the US/China deal commits to reducing US emissions by as much again as we've cut since 2005--largely as a result of a weaker economy and the shale gas revolution--after banking the expected savings from the 2011 fuel economy regulations, energy efficiency programs and renewable energy incentives, and an EPA plan for the power sector that is certain to run into strong opposition in the new Congress. That seems pretty ambitious to me, although it falls short of the 40% reduction recently agreed by the EU for 2030.

It's harder to assess what China's side of the deal means in practical terms. Its 2012 emissions were estimated at nearly 10 billion MT/yr, having grown by 8%/yr since 2004 and by 6%/yr since 2009. At that rate, even if its emissions peaked in 2030, they could double before starting to decline. If China's emissions growth declined to just 2% per year, consistent with the lower rates of growth in coal consumption observed recently, by 2030 it could still add nearly 4 billion MT/yr--equivalent to the current emissions of the entire EU, and 5 times the incremental US cuts to which President Obama just agreed. The most recent projection of China's emissions from the EIA had them growing by 5 billion MT by 2030 but essentially plateauing thereafter.

This falls substantially short of what would be required to keep global emissions within the range that climate models predict would limit average global temperature increases to 2°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. However, it goes well beyond China's previous commitment on emissions intensity at Copenhagen in 2009.

Now consider how this deal looks from the standpoint of US politics. Voters just resoundingly handed undivided control of the legislative branch of government to the President's opposition. Republican office-holders and those who just voted for them are likely to regard it as an unwelcome commitment of the US by a lame-duck President to a promise that only his successors could fulfill. In the process, it hands China and other countries a point with which to prod future US administrations should they fall short of its goals. In exchange, he got President Xi Jinping to admit that China can't emit CO2 limitlessly, but can still do more or less what it may have been planning, anyway. It's hard to see this making things easier in Congress for the President's existing environmental agenda.

The deal looks better from the perspective of international environmental and climate policy circles in the lead-up to the Paris climate conference, "COP21", at the end of 2015. One lesson from the Kyoto Protocol is that to be meaningful a global climate agreement must have a strong commitment from the world's largest emitters of CO2 and other GHGs. China and the US are the two biggest emitters, and the EU at #3 is effectively pre-committed. Together these three blocs account for over half of all emissions today. Having them on-side at the start raises the chances of reaching a  big agreement.

As others have observed, this deal makes it harder to argue against a global CO2 agreement based on China's relative inaction, while increasing pressure on other developing countries to agree to limit their own emissions. It also signals that despite political weakness at home, the White House will likely push for aggressive targets at COP21, setting up further conflict with Congress in the next election year. Finally, its timing is early enough to influence the negotiations but not so early as to permit close scrutiny of Chinese or US follow-through on its goals before the Paris talks begin.

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