US-China Climate Accord is Neither “Historic” nor a “Landmark”
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
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.
JANET REDMAN, DIRECTOR, CLIMATE POLICY PROGRAM, IPS: Thanks for having us on.
MINQI LI, ASSOC. PROF. ECONOMICS, UNIVERSITY OF UTAH: Thank you.
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.
PERIES: And Minqi, there was also an energy agreement signed also on the sidelines of the APEC conference with Russia, and that was an oil agreement. Tell us a little bit about that.
LI: Well, I have not read the details of this energy agreement, but my understanding is that China is committed to have this long-term purchase of natural gas and oil use from Russia in the coming decades. And so, again, like Janet just talked about, both U.S. and China are still pursuing this all-of-the-above. China is still more concerned about its long-term energy supply with respect to fossil fuels and, in this case, natural gas and oil from Russia.
PERIES: Okay. So what now? What do you think is a good strategy for the public or the organizations doing advocacy and protesting, the environmental movement in particular? How can they use this opportunity of this accord to really pressure the governments to do a more achievable as well as a more hardline program for climate change? I’ll start with you, Janet.
REDMAN: Sure. I think there are a couple of opportunities coming up right away. We’ll see a fight again around the Keystone XL Pipeline. That, of course, is the pipeline that’s proposed to be built across the United States from north to south to bring tar sands extracted from Alberta, Canada, down to the Gulf to be exported. It’s actually not for U.S. energy; it’s mainly for export. So there’ll be a fight in Congress about whether or not those pipelines should be built. The Obama administration is put in the hot seat around whether or not it will sign papers that allow the pipeline to be built across our country. And that’s a very symbolic fight. Some scientists have called it game over if we pull out and burn the tar sands. But if more than that, I think it would signal to U.S. movements that Obama is not in fact a climate president and his climate legacy cannot be pushed forward. So I think we’ll see and we should see activism around the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The other big move that’s happening over the next year is that states have been instructed by our federal EPA to write implementation plans that will lower their greenhouse gas emissions. That’s under the Clean Power Plan.
And so I think it’s important that we are seeing a strategic shift from the federal level to the state level and that really that’s a place where advocacy and civil society I think has more power, because the closer you get to decision-makers, my experience is the more responsive they are to you. So I think that’s an important place where civil society, activism, and advocates will be putting their energy.
And then, of course, there are a number of municipal and local fights around clean energy production, municipalizing utilities, putting in place distributed renewable energies like rooftop solar. So those are the kinds of fights that I see being important moving forward, as we see a bit of a slowdown in Congress as barriers are being thrown up in the way of the Obama administration in Congress, over the next two years in particular.
PERIES: And, Janet, what was your take on the ballot measures and what the overwhelming public voted for in the last midterm election?
REDMAN: Yeah, this is what’s it really interesting, actually. We saw the seats of elected officials turn much more red while we saw the issues that were on ballot measures really reflecting a progressive agenda. I think what this signals in large part to me is that the traditional champions of progressive ideas didn’t do a good job of communicating that that’s what they’re behind, or they haven’t been behind it in a good way and need to change their response.
So one of the most exciting pieces that was passed was a fracking ban, I mean, in one case in Texas. So what that tells us is that people are saying, now, we don’t buy this natural gas idea, we don’t buy the idea that cheap natural gas is good for energy security. We don’t see this as a bridge fuel between dirty energy and clean energy. That really shows us that people are saying not only not in my backyard, but not in my kitchen, not in my friend’s backyard, not in my school district. I think that’s an important win, because we’re often told that Americans just care about the cost of electricity. I think that it shows that people actually care about the health of their community and the health of the environment.
PERIES: And one thing we don’t hear from very much as far as the Chinese community of organizers around environmental issues is what are they thinking. When it comes to this accord and the government’s commitment in China, it’s one thing. Is that a lot of hot air, as you have alluded to here? Or is there a movement, is there a pressure in China where they are, the people China are expecting some dramatic changes as far as the environment is concerned?
LI: Well, actually, these days there are many mass incidents related to local environmental protests. But as far as the climate change is concerned, the general awareness of this question of climate change and then its long-term implications remain relatively low within China. And actually there are some nationalists among the people who think this might be a Western conspiracy in order to contain China’s industrial growth. And so, of course, for the Chinese climate activists, I think it’s very important to continue to work on raising people’s consciousness on this long-term issue of climate change.
And I also want to add that globally it’s important to recognize that there is this incompatibility between the requirement of climate stabilization and the reality of this economic model based on profit-oriented capital accumulation. And so it’s very necessary to combine this fight for climate stabilization with broader movement for social change, and including the broader social movement against neoliberal globalization, and also the effort to achieve more egalitarian distribution of wealth. And so only by combining climate stabilization movement with this broader movement of a social change–and then potentially we can accomplish and hopefully we could move closer towards this objective of reasonable climate stabilization.
PERIES: And Professor Li, is there a movement? You referred to sort of local action in terms of environmental concerns. But is there a movement of the kind that we see in the U.S. or, for example, during the global summit on climate change in New York? Do we see that kind of a movement evolving at all in China?
LI: Well, of course, the Chinese political reality is somewhat different from the reality in the U.S., and so you don’t have exactly the same form of movement. But you do have this mass protest and against pollution, and that is directly related to–their interests are directly related to their physical health. And so in fact and in some cases these kind of protests could take place involving tens of thousands of people, and in some places angry masses could even take over the local governments. And so that indeed begin to have some significant impact. But they do not take the–they are not necessarily reported by the mainstream media. But these kind of events could take place in many parts of China, and in some cases you could have two or three large-scale mass incidents related to environmental protest every month.
PERIES: Can you give us an example of that?
LI: Oh, I’m thinking about just last month, and there was a massive protest in near the Xinxiang city of Henan province against a local chemical factory, and where there are several tens of thousands of people involved. And then they actually forced the local government to back down from their plan. And there was another incident in the Hunan province, and in that case I think it was against the coal-fired power plant, and also eventually they forced the government to abandon their plan to build a coal-fired power plant over there.
PERIES: Can I interrupt? I just want to say it’s–I think this kind of exchange is so exciting, because we don’t often hear about that size of protest, that size of demonstration happening in the United States. I mean, we’ve just had the People’s Climate March, which was really exciting and dynamic and talked about this intersection with climate and social justice. But the idea of hearing about ordinary citizens in China taking to the streets to demonstrate around coal-fired power plants or in chemical facilities around incineration, waste-to-energy facilities, is so exciting and so inspiring. I wish that folks in the United States could actually hear about that more consistently. I think it would spark a lot more action here in the United States and kind of indirect response to the kinds of all-the-above policies that are in some ways being shoved down our throats in the U.S.
PERIES: Well, we at The Real News plan to continue this discussion. And hopefully the two of you could be joining us as we will be tracking in a passage to Peru and then to Paris what the two largest emitters of the world are going to be doing about it. And I thank you both for joining us.
REDMAN: Thank you.
LI: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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