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US-China climate accord is neither "historic" nor a "landmark"

Janet Redman and Minqi Li, The Real News, Nov 15 2014 - 08:30

While it is important for China and the US, the two largest CO2 emitters, to walk hand in hand in cooperation, the agreement lacks "all of the above strategies" required to achieve the necessary reductions, says Janet Redman of IPS and Professor Minqi Li of the University of Utah


Minqi Li is an associate professor of economics at the University of Utah. He is the author of The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (Pluto Press, 2009) and the editor of Red China Website (a leading Chinese leftist website).  Minqi Li has published many articles in the filed of political economy, the Chinese economy, global capitalist crisis, peak oil, and climate change.

Janet Redman is director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, where she provides analysis of the international financial institutions, energy investment and carbon finance activities. She appears regularly on radio, TV and in print sharing positive visions for fair and equitable climate action in the United States and overseas. As a founding participant in the global Climate Justice Now! network, Janet is committed to bringing hard-hitting policy analysis into grassroots and grasstops organizing. She is currently working with grassroots coalitions and global campaigns like the Climate Justice Alliance and Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice to develop innovative policies to reinvest in the new economy. Janet serves on the board of directors of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.


SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The announcement of the U.S.-China climate accord reached on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing this week is being hailed as historic and a landmark agreement. Let's have a look.


XI JINPING, PRESIDENT OF CHINA (TRANSLATOR VO): --to make sure that international climate change negotiations will reach an agreement as scheduled at the Paris conference in 2015, and we agreed to deepen party cooperation on clean energy, environmental protection, and other areas.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: That's why today I am proud that we can announce a historic agreement. I commend President Xi, his team, and the Chinese government for the commitment they are making to slow, peak, and then reverse the course of China's carbon emissions.

Today I can also announce that the United States has set a new goal of reducing our net greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025.


PERIES: Well, the truth is it's long overdue. And whether it is historic is yet unknown. It is, however, some progress.

Now, the big question is: what is in the detail? Do these new commitments by the world's two biggest carbon emitters go far enough to avoid the pending climate change catastrophe defined by the IPCC? And then what will be the economic effects and changes that will be required to make this deal real and binding?

With us to discuss these issues are Janet Redman and Professor Minqi Li.

Minqi Li is an associate professor of economics at the University of Utah. He's the author of The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy and Peak Oil, Climate Change, and the Limits to China's Economic Growth. He's also the editor of Red China Network, a progressive Chinese website.

And Janet Redman, she's joining us from Washington, D.C. Janet is the codirector of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, and she's at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she provides analysis of international financial institutions, energy investment, and climate finance activities.

Thank you both for joining us.



PERIES: So if we could start with you, Professor Li, what's in the accord in terms of China's commitments?

LI: Well, my understanding is that in this commitment, which the mainstream media claims to be historic, the U.S. side commits to a reduction of emissions by about 26 percent by 2025 compared to the year 2005. And China commits to an eventual peak of China's carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and as well as some commitment with respect to the growth of renewable energy. And so China is committed to have renewable energy to account for 20 percent of China's energy consumption by 2030.

Now, I just did some rough calculation. If you put U.S. and China's emissions together, and assuming that the rest of countries will also have their equitable share of the global carbon emission project, and that that would be roughly consistent with long-term global warming of 3 degrees Celsius or higher compared to the preindustrial time--and so I think that that would be would be--this commitment would be far less than the so-called historic claimed by the mainstream media.

PERIES: And, Janet, what's in the accord in terms of the U.S. commitment?

REDMAN: So, as Dr. Li mentioned, there is a commitment by the United States to pledge--where it's pledged to cut its emissions by anywhere from 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. And that's interesting. I would say that the cooperation, the joint announcement is politically important. But as Dr. Li mentioned, the substance, the content, is actually quite disappointing. So the emissions reduction of 26 to 28 percent from 2005 by 2025 actually is double what was announced in Obama's earlier targets of ambition for cutting emissions last June, which was 17 percent by 2020. But if we look at the baseline year that every other country uses when they're setting their targets internationally for cutting emissions, the year 1990 was actually a lower emitting year. So by that benchmark, we're still doing an incredibly unambitious lift on cutting our emissions. If we're doubling the ambition from last year, which was about 3 to 4 percent emission cuts, that's really and still double--kind of a pathetic amount is a not so significant amount. So while this is important for China and the U.S., I think, to be walking hand-in-hand and cooperation, as opposed to competition, where climate change and emission reductions are concerned and what that signals for our economies that are so intertwined, I don't think we should celebrate quite yet.

PERIES: And, Professor Li, what do you think of the negotiations and discussions that will have to take place between now and the Paris conference on climate change to really come to a more binding and tangible agreement?

LI: Well, I think most scientists would recommend that the world should be committed to a long-term global warming of no more than 2 degrees Celsius compared to the preindustrial time. But the trouble is, and because we live in this world that is committed to profit-oriented capital accumulation, so given this kind of economic reality, it would be very difficult for the world's government to work out a plan that would simultaneously deliver ecological sustainability as well as providing the basic needs for the great majority of the population in the world. So I'm not quite optimistic about the possibility for the economy international negotiation to actually deliver an outcome that is consistent with a satisfactory climate stabilization.

PERIES: So, given that China's leading in terms of at least--I mean, when you look around the world, it's one of the countries that's leading in terms of renewable energy innovation. Given that, it is really in the interest of China to actually master the art of making good renewable technology and then implementing it as an example to the rest of the world of what's possible with the new technologies and the reduction even if it actually maintains use of carbon-emitting energy sources? Would you not say that would be a goal for China?

LI: Well, I think the Chinese government right now is still committed to a strategy to maximize economic growth using whatever energy that is available. So although in this new commitment China promises to build between 800 and 1,000 gigawatts of the emission-free electric power between now and 2030--and so we need to be careful about what's the actual composition of this emission-free power. And, for example, if it includes nuclear power, that will be questionable. And, also, the largest component of China's renewable power right now is not wind or solar. It's actually hydropower. And so that also carries huge environmental costs itself.

And then in addition to that--and, of course, China commits to this 20 percent share of energy to be emission-free by 2030. But another way [incompr.] that is by 2030 there would still be 80 percent of China's energy that comes from fossil fuels. So I think that is not encouraging at all.

PERIES: Alright. Janet, what kind of economic restructuring and organization would be required if President Obama's administration and the U.S. is really serious about reaching these targets that they announced?

REDMAN: Well, again, the targets aren't--while they're significant, I don't think are so significant it actually means a complete restructuring of our economy, unfortunately.

I just want to actually echo what Dr. Li mentioned. While this is an important announcement and it shows a bit of a shift in taking climate change a bit more seriously than maybe both countries have in the past, it doesn't move us off of an all-of-the-above energy strategy in China or in the United States. So part of we're seeing, for example, in the clean power plan that the Obama administration has put forward guidelines for is that a shift from, say, coal to natural gas, which is still considered lower greenhouse gas emitting technology, would be included in climate action. We're also seeing, for example, shifts being considered to nuclear power.

So at this point I don't see this plan in particular moving us to a new energy, a truly clean renewable energy pathway. And I think partly that's strategic. So just to give the administration some credit, it's obviously operating in an environment in which Congress has made promises to put barriers up in its way at every turn it takes. And it's happened. It's started having already. But certainly it's been promised for the next Congress.

But we're also seeing, I think, a very dangerous shift in the geopolitical realm, so that while this announcement is interesting in terms of cooperation, part of the message it's sending in the broader geopolitical space is, hey, let's not worry too much about this global deal. We're already talking down ambition of a new climate deal at the end of Paris in Paris at the end of next year. We can do a lot bilaterally. That's exciting, that's important, but that gets us out of the realm of talking about globally binding emission reduction responsibilities. Let's get those out of the space of using similar benchmarks, similar metrics of measuring ambition. It also misses the entire point outside of just greenhouse gas mitigation to the point of financing for climate change and development issues, for building capacity, for transferring resources to Global South countries in a way that allows countries to leap over a dirty development pathway. So by focusing too much, I think, on just this cooperation, we're missing a bit of the bigger picture.

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