The United States and China surprised the world this week with signing what is being hailed as an historic climate change agreement. There’s plenty to unpack from this deal, but one of the more interesting aspects to examine is the effect this will have on next year’s climate summit in Paris, and the quixotic quest to sign a Global Climate Treaty (GCT).Many in the media are interpreting Tuesday’s agreement as a positive sign for the fabled GCT. Ever since this treaty was first mooted, there’s been a schism between the developed and developing world, with the United States and China heading up the respective parties. The developed world would like to see China, India, and others start ratcheting down emissions, and for good reason: as these countries industrialize, they contribute enormously to global greenhouse gas emissions. These countries, in turn, understandably chafe at the idea of the West denying them access to cheap energy sources like coal in the name of the greater good, when the developed world itself is largely responsible for these GHG emissions to date. The result: deadlock.But now, with the U.S. and China taking a step toward reducing emissions—together—there’s a kind of optimism over a global deal that hasn’t been seen since the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009. Take the FT for instance:
Until now, opponents of tougher climate policies have been able to argue it is pointless to act when the two biggest emitters are doing little themselves. Some also question how serious a threat climate change poses, especially in big fossil fuel producers such as Canada, Australia and the US. […]The US-China deal makes these arguments harder to pursue. That includes big emerging economies such as India that have also been wary of any global treaty that could require them make bigger climate commitments.
Beyond the obvious implications of the world’s two biggest emitters committing to more stringent reductions, the deal could have knock-on effects elsewhere, as the BBC reports:
As well as putting pressure on the developing countries to move on from a simple, binary view of the world, the deal should also put pressure on some developed countries who have been moving away from tackling emissions.“The ball is in play, so now others, not just developing counties but the likes of Japan, Canada and Australia, there is now pressure on them to come forward with something themselves,” said [WWF’s] Samantha Smith.
But despite all this breathless enthusiasm for one of the first positive stories in the climate policy narrative in years, a binding GCT is no closer to reality than it was last week. Any agreement reached at next year’s summit in Paris will surely go unratified by the U.S. Congress. The fact that the GCT will not legally bind the U.S. to reduce emissions, or to pay into a fund to help countries adapt to the effects of climate change, gives plenty of ammunition to actors in the developing world who are reluctant to sign on. If countries do hash out some sort of agreement, it will likely be as toothless as 1928’s Kellogg-Briand pact.These dual agreements say more about changes in economic development than they do about desires for the U.S. or China to “go green.” China has plenty of reasons to want to lower its dependence on coal, to boost its consumption of cleaner natural gas, and to become more energy efficient, and none of them have to do with climate change. The world economy is, for reasons entirely separate from environmental rationale, getting greener. The carbon intensity of growth is dropping along with energy intensity, and the transition to the information economy is begetting all kinds of efficiency gains that should have greens cheering.In the meantime, world leaders are going to package their plans for economic growth as green endeavors, just as Obama and Xi did this week. That doesn’t mean we’re any closer to a binding GCT.