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US and China Give False Hope for Global Climate Treaty

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At their much-hyped “shirtsleeves summit” this weekend, President Obama and President Xi made a deal to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a particularly nasty greenhouse gas used as an industrial refrigerant. HFCs can be replaced relatively cheaply, and the framework for doing so is already in place, thanks to the Montreal Protocol, which got the world to stop using ozone-destroying CFCs in the late 1980s and 1990s.

China has slowed its emissions growth over the past decade, and the US has seen its emissions decrease as well. A lot of the credit for this accomplishment goes to shale gas, which is replacing much dirtier-burning coal. Taken together with the HFCs announcement, this is renewing the greens’ hope for further emissions reductions—and even a Global Climate Treaty.

The greens shouldn’t get too carried away. These successes don’t mean that a global treaty is any more likely or feasible. HFCs are a low hanging fruit; a global climate treaty is all the way up at the top of the tree. And emissions-reducing shale gas has largely boomed in spite of, not because of, green policy.

There’s nothing in this news to suggest that the problems that blocked past treaties are going away. The risks of climate change still aren’t well defined. Our understanding of Earth’s complex system is constantly changing, and policymakers still don’t have clear targets to work with. More importantly, the countries responsible for the lion’s share of emissions are also the least likely to curtail them. Developing countries now contribute 60 percent of global emissions, up from 45 percent in 2000. For them, growth is an imperative. Emissions reductions are a luxury that only the developed world can afford.

But even if countries get together and iron out targets, without any reliable enforcement mechanism we’re likely to see the second coming of the Kellogg-Briand pact to outlaw war. When push comes to shove, countries always value growth over emissions reductions. This is true even in Europe, which has repeatedly failed to fix its broken emissions reductions program.

If greens look past the dream of a global treaty, they will find plenty of alternatives that individual states would benefit from tackling on their own. The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report today that outlines four such strategies: targeting energy efficiency measures (another low-hanging fruit), limiting construction of inefficient coal plants (something shale gas can help with), reducing methane leaks in the oil and gas industry, and partially phasing out fossil fuel consumption subsidies.

The IEA’s report isn’t the definitive document on climate change mitigation, but it does give countries options that, on paper, can reduce emissions with current technology, without curtailing growth. These kinds of solutions are far more workable than a global carbon treaty. The global green movement would be far more effective if it acknowledged this.

[Earth image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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  • Andrew Allison

    This agreement is much more significant that you give it credit for. HFCs are very potent greenhouse gases and, unlike CO2, their concentration in the atmosphere actually corresponds to the ups and, recently, downs in Global Temperature. Also, what the report said was, “The report notes that the growth in China’s emissions has been among the lowest for a decade. That’s a very different thing from “China has slowed its emissions growth over the past decade.” In fact, despite “outsourcing” emissions to less developed countries, China’s carbon emissions continue to increase (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/chinas-choice/2013/jun/07/chinas-environmental-problems-grim-ministry-report)

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