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Green Dreams
An Alternative to the Global Climate Treaty?

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.

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  • mgoodfel

    Conservation and cleaner fuels aren’t going to reduce emissions enough to make a difference to warming. Research would be a better use of the money.

  • free_agent

    You write, “International efforts centered around avoiding some far-off danger, no
    matter how threatening that danger is, are a waste of time and energy.” That’s not entirely true. The ozone problem was handled rather well. In my opinion, the reasons that worked are (1) the costs for fixing the problem were much lower, (2) the countries on which most of the costs fell (the industrialized ones) were in relatively similar positions, and (3) the costs that fell on non-industrialized countries were small and could largely be moved to industrialized countries (for whom the cost was not significant).

    • Arkeygeezer

      The “ozone problem” was a hole in the upper ozone layer of atmosphere which protects us from the direct rays of the sun. In attempting to correct the problem we banned PCPs and freon in air conditioners.

      Did the hole go away? No its still there.

      • Jesse4

        Still there, but declining, as predicted.

  • Andrew Allison

    This argument overlooks the fact that the techniques (technology and regulation) which have reduced US emissions to levels not seen for a generation are readily available to China which, thus far, has chosen not to invest in them. The real incentive for the US to enter into some sort of agreement with China is that the prevailing winds in the Northern hemisphere blow west to east, delivering a significant amount of Chinese pollution to N. American. In other words, the US should invest in reducing China’s emissions.

    • rlhailssrpe

      I am uncertain of the antecedent of “This argument….” but if it refers to my words, I would point out that China is a sovereign nation, filled with very bright people, and if they reject US emission controls, they deem this in their best interests.

      And.considering our economic status, I would very much oppose our investing “… in reducing China’s emissions”. Emission control costs for a nation four times our population? We can not compete as it is.

      The essential conflict of carbon combustion vs. climate change is that the decision, absent war, is out of America’s control.

      I see no solution, IF CO2 is bad.

      • Andrew Allison

        The argument is, “Forget the chimera of a Global Climate Treaty. Why not try a bilateral agreement between Washington and Beijing?”
        As recipients of their pollution, we should at least consider the cost/benefit of incenting the Chinese to utilize the extant technology.
        If you’d drawn breath in a major Chinese city, you would know that CO2 (which, as I’ve argued elsewhere is not nearly as bad as advertized) is the least of the problems.
        What we should under no circumstances do is cripple our economy.

        • rlhailssrpe

          China must, and will, come to some level of acceptable emissions controls, in their own best interests. Emissions controls are expensive and they will, via internal stresses, reach what they perceive as the “correct” balance. It would be helpful to us to share our technologies with them.

          I would clarify a few points. The dirty smog, in their cities, and everywhere are due to airborne particles, acid condensation and reaction with air and sun light. Our power plants are so clean you can not tell if they are running by looking up from the bottom of the chimney. Our clean up systems work, at a price. However no human can see CO2, the climate change bogeyman. And, excepting government fibs, there is no cost effective solution to removing CO2 from a power plant’s exhaust. Nothing works, after enormous RD&D. This is the hard point.

          • Andrew Allison

            With respect, the point is that we’ve already done the R&D!

          • rlhailssrpe

            For particulates and acid control, yes. For CO2 capture, no, not for power plants. There is no cost effective developed technology for carbon dioxide capture in a power plant. One demonstration plant, in Mississippi, is in final construction and start up, which means we are years away from knowing real numbers. The projected costs are staggering, but no one knows, in the US. You get to that stage when hard dollar contracts, with liquidated penalties, are common place. That may take a generation or more.

            Then we can bring it to China.

          • Andrew Allison

            US CO2 emissions are at a 30-year low, and as power plants convert to natgas, which has half the emissions/therm, will fall still further. Maybe we should just teach them to frack. Auto economy and emission standards have also been a significant contributor.

          • rlhailssrpe

            I concur that we should engage China in all of these technology areas, to mutual benefit.

            However, considering their population, their per capita GDP, their per capita energy usage, the certain result, as I write above, must be a drastic increase in carbon combustion, and CO2 emissions, or continued starvation levels of subsidence for China (and Asia). They will burn carbon, in every phase. (And use uranium.)

            The global sum of CO2 emissions has not been, and will not be, within America’s ability to control, short of war.

            I see no solution, IF CO2 is bad.

          • Andrew Allison

            I’m simply suggesting that it is in our interest to encourage the use of proven pollution reduction techniques. That said, if the downward drift in global temperature since 1997 despite a 35% in anthropogenic CO2 is indicative of the onset of a new ice age, perhaps we should encourage them to emit as much CO2 as possible [/grin]. Therein lies the rub: we just don’t know what’s going on.
            To return to the subject of the thread, we do have an interest in reducing Chinese pollution (not necessarily CO2) but should not get trapped into reducing ours (which we’ve already done and will continue to) in exchange for them reducing theirs.

  • rlhailssrpe

    There is no answer. That is the problem. If carbon combustion is bad, then billions are doomed. The only valid argument is who is first and when? The root fact of life is that only uranium and carbon can be the prime fuels for an advanced society, for the next several generations, as far as experts can predict. Any nation which rejects these two fuels is doomed; their industry will collapse (as ours is collapsing). All the green energies have inherent limitations (unchangeable by man) which makes them too costly to use.

    One example: China has more people living at starvation level than live in the USA. If they instantly had access to the “good” natural gas, things would get worse from an environmental view. The simple reason is that nat gas produces half of the CO2 that coal does, but if you double nat gas combustion you have accomplished nothing, IF CO2 is bad for the climate.

    If our leaders were honest (they are not), they would level with us and require that we revert to a standard of living last seen circa 1890: no indoor plumbing, central air, street lights, or horseless carriages. That, in their private eyes, is conservation.

    Since the beginning of this century, we have spent over $100,000,000,000 on green. What have we to show for this epic expenditure?

    • Johannessen

      i completely agree, but i think there is one small update regarding the standard of living argument. our leaders want us to revert to that standard of living, but not themselves. they believe that they are so important that they should be able to do whatever they want, because it’s for the good of us (so they claim), but when asked to live by the same set of rules, they balk (see Obamacare for an example, or insider traiding for another)

    • Breif2

      Excellent comment, but IF CO2 is harmful due to greenhouse effects, we might still escape via geoengineering. True, the field is in its infancy, but it is more likely to yield a solution within our lifetime than the hunt for pixie-dust energy. True, the methods we would use would have inevitable negative side-effects, and the idea of “climate wars” is highly unappealing, but IF the only other alternatives are boiling or reverting, then engineer we shall.

    • Andrew Allison

      I beg to differ. The answer is that that the effect of anthropogenic CO2 has been shown to be much less than anticipated. There are two possible explanations: the greenhouse effect is non-linear; or atmospheric CO2 holding back a new ice age. We should probably try and figure out which it is before making a really serious mistake.

  • HAL 9000

    The last thing I would do is send in the current Administration to wheel and deal with the likes of the Chinese. The current Administration has already been sold down the river by the Syrians, Persians, and Russians (multiple times with the Russians).

    I would not send the Administration in to wheel and deal over buying a used car, much less a binding agreement over the entire energy industry for potentially decades to come.

    • toumanbeg

      I agree. Not sure I would trust this administration to bring home a free puppy.

  • twopartysystem1

    Reminds me of Y2K….

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