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Fact check: China pledged bigger climate action than the USA; Republican leaders wrong

Posted on 14 November 2014 by dana1981

This week, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a secretly negotiated agreement for both countries to slow global warming by pledging to reduce carbon pollution. Specifically, President Obama pledged that the USA would cut its carbon pollution 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2025, while President Xi pledged that by 2030, Chinese carbon pollution will peak and 20% of the country’s energy will come from low-carbon sources.

This agreement received predominantly high praise because it represents the world’s two biggest net carbon polluters taking a leading role in committing to tackle the threats posed by human-caused global warming. China in particular is often used as an excuse by those in the United States and around the world who oppose taking steps to slow global warming.

With the announcement of this agreement, the Chinese president has agreed that his country must begin the process of slowing the growth of and eventually reducing its carbon pollution. The common refrain “nothing we do matters unless China acts” is moot.

However, Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were among the few who issued negative public statements about the climate agreement. McConnell in particular badly misunderstood the practical consequences of the Chinese and American carbon pledges, saying,

As I read the agreement it requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years while these carbon emissions regulations are creating havoc in my state and around the country,

Senator McConnell misunderstood the Chinese target of reaching peak carbon pollution levels by 2030 as a pledge to “do nothing.” In reality, China has been developing rapidly with hundreds of millions of citizens rising out of poverty, thus demanding more energy. Much of that demand has been met with new coal power plants; China has added one and a half times the entire US coal power plant fleet in just the past decade. As a result, Chinese carbon pollution has been rising fast.

China could not meet its climate pledge by maintaining business-as-usual (BAU) and doing “nothing.” Quite the opposite; curbing those rising carbon emissions as China’s economy continues to grow will require substantial effort. That’s why President Xi also pledged that 20% of the country’s energy would come from low-carbon sources by 2030.

In comparison, the United States will have a relatively easy time meeting the pledge made by President Obama. US carbon pollution is already about 10–15% below 2005 levels and falling by about 1.5% per year. Achieving the target of 26–28% emissions cuts below 2005 levels by 2025 will only require continuing the current rate at which American carbon pollution is already falling.

China and USA carbon dioxide emissions from power generation from 1981 to 2012 (solid lines and squares; data from US Energy Information Administration), pledges (dotted lines), and business-as-usual (BAU) emissions (dashed lines).

China and USA carbon dioxide emissions from power generation from 1981 to 2012 (solid lines and squares; data from US Energy Information Administration), pledges (dotted lines), and business-as-usual (BAU) emissions (dashed lines). Created by Dana Nuccitelli.

Contrary to Senator McConnell’s perception, it’s President Obama’s pledge that requires doing little more than America is already doing. President Xi’s pledge requires that China dramatically alter its current course, cutting its net carbon pollution between 2015 and 2030 by about 20 billion tons. Speaker Boehner similarly denounced the agreement as,

…the latest example of the president’s crusade against affordable, reliable energy that is already hurting jobs and squeezing middle-class families

However, President Obama simply pledged that America’s carbon pollution would continue to fall. How those emissions cuts are achieved is open for debate, and studies have shown there are ways to cut carbon pollution while growing the economy, creating jobs, and helping the middle class.

Unfortunately, the comments made by Republican congressional leaders McConnell and Boehner signal that they’re more interested in finding ways to increase coal and oil consumption and making global warming worse than they are in finding economically beneficial ways of tackling this problem.

Recent research has shown that a majority of Republicans accept the reality of human-caused global warming when they realize there are free market solutions available, but about two-thirds of Republicans reject the science when they think the solution requires government regulation.

From Campbell and Kay,

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Comments 1 to 26:

  1. Predictably the claims by the Republican leadership-of-the-moment have little merit, just potential popular appeal. After all, they are trying to promote activity that has no real merit, just potential short-term popular appeal.

    Those who only care about getting the best possible present benefit for themselves are the real problem. They will constantly fight to try to win what they want any way they they can get away with. A better future is of little interest to them. And fighting to keep others from 'developing to live the way they do because there is not enough opportunity for everyone to live that unsustainable damaging way' is an obsession for them. And in many cases the actions that would develop a sustainable better future for all of humanity are contrary to 'their interests'.

    A lack of interest in the development of a sustainable better future for all clearly has a potential for short-term competetive advantage and potential regional popular support. And the damaging consequences of those attitudes and actions continuing to succeed is becoming clearer. Yet they remain 'popular and profitable'. Their popularity and profitability is what needs to change and that will only happen with the success of decent reasonable leadership examples. Other types of leadership succeeding will be unsustainable and damaging as much as they can get away with.

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  2. Two further points to bolster Dana's case:

    1. China's carbon footprint is only 1/4th America's.

    2. The EU has already pledged a 2030 target of 40% (down from 1990 levels).  Hopefully, all these falling domino's will encourage more commitments.

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  3. Writing "Republican Leaders" next to "wrong" is getting to be something of a tautology these days.

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  4. Another point to keep in mind about the planned USA emissions reductions is the choice by the US to talk about reductions relative to 2005 levels. Though European emissions in 2005 were not significantly lower than they were in 2005, the US emissions in 2005 were about 17% higher than 1990. So the US reductions of 17% by 2020 and 27% by 2025 may seem comparable to the EU reduction of 40% relative to 1990 levels by 2030, but it really isn't. The use of 1990 as the basis for reporting emissions does not 'suit the interests of the USA' since it deliberately increased its activity to benefit from burning the stuff after admitting such activity was unacceptable.

    Canada behaved even worse. In 2005 Canada's emissions were more than 25% higher than they were in 1990. And Canada isn't even close to meeting the commitment made by its Conservative government, 17% reduction by 2020. And Canada's Conservative Government has not only failed to reduce Canada's emissions, they are pushing the sale of buried hydrocarbons from Canada to other places to be burned.

    I am also a little suspicious that the agreement says China will have 20% of its energy from 'low carbon' sources. Why does that mean? Why does it not say '20% of its energy from sources that do burn fossil fuels'? Burning natural gas still produces half the CO2 impact of burning coal. But is 50% of the impact of coal, which really is still creating significant impact, what they mean by 'low carbon'?.

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  5. I assumed "low carbon sources" meant essentially all non-fossil fuel sources--hydro and nukes as well as wind, solar and other renewables. But perhaps the openness of the term does leave them some wiggle room for interpretation.

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  6. wili,

    The range of interpretation of the term 'low carbon' is indeed what I was highlighting. That term has traditionally been used to refer to an entire socioeconomic system implying that less carbon is emitted. Even in that context it is open to interpretation. A better use of the term is in reference to the direction of development, such as developing to a lower carbon emissions impact way of doing things.

    However, I must clarify that questioning the intent of the term in relation to China's commitments is not meant to seriously diminish the significance of the commitment made by China. I just wanted to point out the need to clarify points that can be 'open to misleading claims'. China has clearly stated they will be capping their impacts by 2030 which is significant. However, in the full presentation of the details of the commitment which will be part of the 2015 formal commitments I wold want to see that the maximum per-capita level of China's impacts will be lower than the levels the USA developed to.

    My main point was about the irrefutable fact that the USA and a few other countries increased their emissions after globally admitting that already well developed nations doing so was unacceptable, after agreeing hat those alreday well developed nations would be the leaders and needed to show leadership. The actions of those nations to further increase their unaccepable impacts over the for 15 years after declaring how unacceptable it would be to do such a thing provides an irrefutable basis for the likes of China and India to thumb their noses at requests for them to cap their emissions before their nations reach the level of development that the USA had reached by 1990.

    The fact that the likes of the Repubican Leadership have tried to claim the USA should not be reducing its emissions unless nations like China and India also have caps set at lower per-capita emissions than the USA developed to in 2005 is incredibly galling since these are people fully aware of all the facts and very aware of the claiims they make. Their behaviour on this issue indicates that the USA has the potentially stopped being a global leader toward a better future for all, and maybe that end of USA global leadership pre-dates 1990. Maybe the USA never was leading toward the development of a sustainable better future for all. And as seen in the chart in the article China will be setting a 2030 per-capita cap on their emissions that is signficantly lower than the level the USA was at in 1990. The USA 5000 Mtonnes (6127 Mtonnes GHG equiv), for 250 million matched matched by China's current population of 1400 million would be 28,000 Mtonnes CO2 (34,000 Mtonnes GHG equiv), and China will not be near that number by 2030. As indicated in the chart in the article the BAU expected emissions in China by 2030 would be about 16,000 Mtonnes CO2 which would be 40% less than the USA per-capita impacts in 1990. So China is showing more global leadership than the USA commitment.

    p.s. I have presented information on a per-capita basis which I know raises challenges that global population growth is 'the problem'. While there are many things affected by global population growth the CO2 emissions problem is caused by the people with high per-capita impacts. And what is clearly indicated is a need for a global maximum cap on total accumulated emissions in the near term with a low total global allowance per year after that time for humanity to sustainably develop a beter future for all.

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  7. Neither the US or China are global leaders on energy effeciency or carbon cuts but they could be if they wanted to.

    An analysis by European climate science institutes:

    Good Twins or Evil Twins? U.S., China Could Tip the Climate Balance

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  8. @ubrew12

    Can you source your data, China carbon footprint 1/4 of USA? 

    Simple search found "EDGAR (database created by European Commission and Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency) released 2012 estimates. The following table lists the 2012 estimate of annual CO2 emissions estimates (in thousands of CO2 tonnes) from these estimates along with a list of emissions per capita (in tonnes of CO2 per year) from same source."

    China is #1 emitter at 9,860,000 (in 1000s of tons CO2)

    USA #2 emitter at 5,190,000

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  9. joeygoze...  ubrew12 included a citation. It's a "per person" reference. I would even hold that it is smaller than that since a portion of those emissions are the result of producing products for western markets.

    If you've ever spent any time in China you realize how small a single Chinese person's carbon footprint is. Most of the population still lives an agrarian lifestyle. And even those who live in cities spend very little heating or cooling their homes. Most use public transportation. Appliances are small. Most clothing is still hand washed and air dried. So on and so forth...

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  10. @Rob

    As CO2 is the driver of atmospheric warming, I think looking at the per capita basis is wrong.  The tons of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere is the issue.  It does not matter that the tonnage is spread over more people, the issue is the quantity of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere.

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  11. joeygoze...  That logic doesn't hold. Why would national boundaries be the proper metric? That's an even more arbitrary measure. And, if you're going to say that per capita doesn't matter, then you also can't claim that the carbon footprint of any individual matters. 

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  12. @Rob

    National boundaries define an area where industrial activity is occurring and the governments that function in those areas can regulate that region, it is not an arbitrary definition at all. China gov't can initiate regulations to control CO2 output in their geographic domain.  U.S. can regulate its geographic domain.  If goal is limiting total CO2 output, what is the issue with this?

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  13. joeygoze @10 &12, the idea that CO2 emission targets should be equal between nations rather than equal per capita is one of those ideas that some people think is a good idea, but only because they never apply it.  Taken literally, it means that (for example) the Bahamas (population 319,031) should be permitted to emit the same quantity of CO2 as the United States (population 322,583,006) or China (population 1,393,783,836); or that the Vatican City be permitted the same emissions as Italy.  Some people think that the idea that the US and China should be permitted the same emissions, but those people never apply the same logic to the many small nations of the world.  They would instantly recognize the disadvantage that would accrue to the US should they do so, not to mention the injustice of any such scheme.  However, as they want to apply that logic when it advantages their nation relative to some other, their refusal to do so when it disadvantages their nation relative to some third country demonstrates that they do not accept their own reasoning - that their reasoning is in fact a rhetorical ploy serving a tactical end.

    Perhaps that sort of strategy is not what you meant.  Perhaps what you meant is that each nation should reduce emissions from historical levels at the same rate.  Such a strategy has the convenient (for western nations) property that because they contributed most to the problem of CO2 increase in the past, they should be permitted to contribute most to that problem in the future as well.  As reducing emissions may well have an economic cost, it also has the convenient effect of locking in current economic advantages, ie, of requiring China to sign up to their citizens having a lower standard of living than those of the US for the rest of this century because the US has historically contributed more to current CO2 concentrations in the past than has China.  No US citizen would accept that argument were the situations reversed - and rightly so.  They would percieve it as self serving sophistry in an attempt to avoid tackling the problem properly.  And so it is.

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  14. joeygoze...  That's absurd, though. Ignoring per capita would suggest the smallest nations in the world can increase their output many times over. Collectively, that would be an unmitigated disaster. Do you really think that Belgium should have the same opportunity to emit carbon on a national level as the United States?

    National governments are certainly the mechanism for regulation and control of carbon emissions, but per capita emissions are going to define, in a more realistic way, how much any given nation can decarbonize, as well as their potential for increased emissions.

    In the U.S. we are one of the top emitters per capita, along with Australia and Canada. That means that we have the greatest opportunity to take responsibility for our emissions levels, and doing so only acts to encourage other nations to act accordingly.

    "With great wealth comes great responsibility."

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  15. Think I am suggesting more what @Curtis is saying, in order to reduce emissions on a per country basis each country should reduce "from historical levels at the same rate"  Believe this drives to the heart of lowering total global CO2 emissions.  Not reasonable to suggest that Belgium could or would emit the same as the U.S. but all can reduce by some percentage and if the country is really small like Belgium or Bahamas, let them remain at the status quo since there emissions are negligable versus ROW.

    It is not clear how the per capita argument is more "realistic" to determine how any one nation can decarbonize. A country like China whose raw CO2 output is double that of the U.S., how do we give them a pass just because on a per capita basis, they come out lower.  It is the total CO2 output that is damaging to the climate.

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  16. joeygoze... So, if the tables were turned, would the US agree to such a strategy? 

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  17. joeygoze:

    You write:

    Think I am suggesting more what @Curtis is saying, in order to reduce emissions on a per country basis each country should reduce "from historical levels at the same rate"

    But Tom Curtis then went on to point out why that is not such a good policy.

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  18. joeygoze @15, it is the total CO2 output that is damaging the climate but:

    1)  The total CO2 output is reduced whether we set equal %reductions by nation or equal per capita targets with the same % reduction of the total.  As either method results in the same overall reduction, pointing out that it is the total CO2 output that is damaging the climate is irrelevant to the discussion.

    2)  In general, fossil fuel use (and hence CO2 emissions) per capita correlates with per capita wealth.  Allowing unequal per capita targets therefor entrenches unequal wealth as a precondition for tackling AGW.  It is as though the US (and Australia) were to say to the world that they will refuse to tackle the problem they have primarilly created unless they are subsidized by the rest of the world to do so.

    3)  Emissions of CO2 are a problem.  That means all emissions of CO2 harm everybody to some small extent.  Entrenching unequal per capita emissions entrenches a right for US citizens to harm the rest of the world more than they are harmed in perpetuity, so that they can recieve a larger benefit than is available for non-US citizens.

    4)  As a simple pragmatic matter, neither the China nor India are sufficiently gullible or virtuous that they will take a policy which will entrench a lower per capita income for their people for at least the next half century just so the US can maintain a higher standard of living by not tackling seriously the problem the US has primarilly caused.  An effective global agreement to cut back emissions can only go forward based on a reduction program that results in equal per capita emissions in the medium term (or something closely approximating it).

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  19. I think there are two point to consider here.

    1/ The extra CO2 in the atmosphere is the accumulated result from years of emissions. If you look at historical responsibility for total emissions by country, (for instance the table here) then you see US,Europe far exceed China and so should take the responsibility for reducing output first

    2/ Countries with very emissions per capita are far better positioned to make big cuts than countries with low emissions per capita. The US energy consumption  (at 250kWh per person per day) is around double that of say UK. It seems entirely reasonable that US citizens could manage with a lot less without undue hardship. It's a lot tougher asking for cuts from people (eg Chinese) using only 50 kWh/per person/per day.

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  20. @ Rob - have no idea what the U.S. gov't would agree, thought we were having a discussion on the merits of determining reductions based on per capita emissions versus quantitative CO2 emissions per country?

    @Curtis - If it is the case that "neither the China nor India are sufficiently gullible or virtuous that they will take a policy which will entrench a lower per capita income for their people for at least the next half century just so the US can maintain a higher standard of living by not tackling seriously the problem the US has primarilly caused." - then in my view, no way the U.S. gets on board as there is no incentive to lower the per capita income for Americans as well. 

    @scaddenp - do not believe anyone is in a position to determine what is an "undue" hardship for another individual.  Can not say what U.S., UK, or Chinese citizens can absorb with respect to emissions reductions.

    Moderator - how is this not a "dogpile" as outlines in your Updated Comments Policy?

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  21. joeygoze... That's a deflection of a blatantly obvious and essentially rhetorical question. The answer is, no, the US would never agree to such a strategy.

    But you're right, this is verging on dogpiling.

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  22. ...and yes, this is very much a discussion on per capita vs national level emissions. I'm a little surprised that you can't see how this is related.

    Let's take another example. If you seem to think that nations should cut equally, how is Bangladesh to tell their citizenry that they must cut their emissions? They certainly can't cut their emissions proportionate the US on a total volume basis since our emissions exceed their's many times over. Even on a proportional basis, can you ask people who are barely living subsistence lifestyles to cut their emissions 50%?

    You have to look at this question on a per capita basis. Action has to occur on a govermental level but you have to balance agreements on a per capita measure. And, as I pointed out earlier, even that is complex because maybe China's answer to that will be, "Okay western nations, you can make your own stuff from now on because we don't want your carbon emissions from manufacturing to mucking up our emissions targets."

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  23. [JH] Moderation Comments

    Scaddemp & Tom Curtis: Please let Rob Honeycutt do the repsonding to joeygoz from here on out.

    Joeygoz: The SkS Comments Policy also prohibits excessive repitition.  

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  24. Regarding the debate about per-capita measures of impact, in my earlier comment I indicated that the problem is not created by the 'number of people' as much as it is created by people who live a high-impact lifestyle. A reduction of the impact of the highest-impacting people is required.

    There are many wealthy people in nations with high per-capita impacts who strive to be low-impact. They are not the problem. The people who are high-impact livers in a nation full of very poor low-impact people are as much of a problem as the high-impact livers in a richer nation.

    Per-person impact evaluation clearly needs to be the focus, with the sharpest focus being on those whose lifestyle and way of profiting produce the largest impact regardless of the nation they are in.

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  25. Per capita may be the easiest remotely valid method to follow, but it does have many limitations. As OPOF notes, it ignores differences in emissions between individuals / groups within each country. It also ignores the cumulative emissions issue raised by scaddenp. Though, on that, do we need to consider emissions prior to knowledge of the potential harm and/or dangerous atmospheric levels differently than emissions thereafter? Does using a per capita basis discourage wealthy nations from continuing to conduct research on better food crops which have allowed the large populations in some developing nations to survive? Et cetera.

    There is no 'perfect' / 'fair' solution. Per capita is a reasonable starting point,  but while we structure things to give developing nations a chance to improve their standard of living we should do just as much to allow developed nations to continue improving their standard of living as well. Ultimately, the global targets have to be based on 'units of energy / units of GHG'.

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  26. The set of wealthy and powerful developed nations are working towards collectively limiting the success of tax cheaters globally, rather than nationally. My preference would be for them to also cooperatively and collectively effectively limit the success of the highest impact pursuers of profit and pleasure globally, rather than allowing the game playing of nations that can have leadership that is temporarily under the thumbs of some of those undesirable characters.

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