Forget the chimera of a Global Climate Treaty. Why not try a bilateral agreement between Washington and Beijing?So argues environmental economist and Harvard professor Robert Stavins. At least, he says, it couldn’t be any worse than the efforts to come to an international agreement to curtail greenhouse gas emissions:
In Bonn this past week, international negotiations continued under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The two most important countries in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – China and the United States – apparently engaged in a war of words on the fundamental question of who should do what…The United States and other industrialized countries have insisted that this calls for an agreement with emissions reduction pledges by all countries (in particular, by the industrialized countries plus the large emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa). But China, India, and most countries in the developing world have maintained that because the Durban Platform was adopted under the auspices of the UNFCCC, it calls only for emission reduction commitments by the industrialized countries.
This schism between the developed and the developing world has scuppered every serious climate treaty to date, and it won’t be papered over by rhetoric. But Stavins sees a bilateral Chinese-American effort as an alternative that could succeed where the annual UNFCCC meetings have failed. He identifies a number of reasons for this optimism, the most compelling being an increasing parity in responsibility:
Any discussion of distributional equity in the climate realm therefore inevitably turns to considerations of historic responsibility. Looking at the period 1850-2010, the United States led the pack, accounting for nearly 19% of cumulative global emissions of GHGs, with the European Union in second place with 17%, and China third, accounting for about 12% of global cumulative emissions. But that picture is rapidly changing, because emissions are flat to declining throughout the industrialized world, but increasingly rapidly in the large emerging economies, in particular, China. Depending upon the relative rates of economic growth of China and the United States, as well as other factors, China may top all countries in cumulative emissions within 10 to 20 years.
In other words, pretty soon China will lose its favorite (and most justifiable) excuse for not significantly restricting its emissions: that the West bears greater responsibility for the current climate situation.But Stavins also points out that China and the United States share a parallel opportunity to replace much higher emitting coal-fired power plants with ones powered by shale gas:
China and the United States both have historically high reliance on coal for generating electricity. At a time at which U.S. dependence on coal is decreasing (due to increased supplies of unconventional natural gas and hence lower gas prices ), China continues to rely on coal, but is very concerned about this, partly because of localized health impacts of particulates and other pollutants. Importantly, both countries have very large shale gas reserves. U.S. output (and use for electricity generation) has been increasing rapidly, bringing down CO2 emissions, whereas Chinese exploitation and output have been constrained by available infrastructure (that is, lack of pipelines, but that will change).
China will need to do more than build out its pipeline infrastructure to start extracting shale gas in commercially significant quantities. It has to deal with a much more serious water scarcity problem, as well as more complicated geology, a lack of fracking expertise, and a less robust oil and gas drilling industry. But it sits on the world’s largest reserves of shale gas, and the public outcry over the toxic smog choking its megacities means it has the demand for lower-emitting, cleaner-burning natural gas to match its significant supply.However the U.S. and China pursue these emissions goals, you can be sure they will do so with their own national interests at heart. International efforts centered around avoiding some far-off danger, no matter how threatening that danger is, are a waste of time and energy. But that doesn’t mean the world’s biggest emitters can’t take significant steps towards lowering emissions by embracing energy efficiency, hastening the transition to a less energy intensive information economy, and riding the shale boom to a greener future.