A Day Late & a Dollar Short: Obama & China agree on Languid Climate Goals

By Juan Cole

The good news is that US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have reached an agreement on limiting carbon emissions in their two countries.

The US puts out 5.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, and China does 7 – 9 billion. The US did 5 billion metric tons in 1990 but went on up to 5.5 in 1996 and 6 in the mid-zeroes.

The US just agreed to reduce carbon emissions to as much as 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. But US emissions increased from 5 bn tons a year in 1990 to 6 bn in 2005, an increase of 20 percent. So the US is still only committed to being slightly below 1990 levels by 2025. In other words, it will go on spewing an average of 5 bn metric tons a year into the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking a dump in your kitchen sink, for over a decade into the future, getting down to like 4.5 billion metric tons in a decade. This is as close to doing nothing about the crisis as you could get. It is twice as ambitious a goal as the previous one in the US, but this is a country of oilmen and climate change denialists who really do want to increase emissions.

That US emissions have fallen back to 1996 levels is better than nothing, but that we never reduced from 1990 levels and have gone on putting 5 and 6 billion metric tons of CO2 in the atmosphere for the last quarter century — even though all non-morons knew we were endangering the planet thereby — is a scandal comparable to the US commitment to slavery for its first decades.

The US output is much greater per person than China (every American emits on average 16 metric tons of CO2 every year), but these two countries are the biggest emitters. Neither country is willing to risk an economic slowdown by launching the kind of emergency shift to renewables that is needed to avert potential climate disruption. (In fact, studies show that turning to renewables won’t cause a slowdown but will rather add to economic growth; sun and wind as fuel are free).

Neither country has been willing to do all that much at all to reduce emissions. US emissions went up last year and are only slightly down from the highs of the zeroes, mainly because of the rise of wind power in Iowa, Texas, etc., switching a bit from coal to natural gas, and the economic turn down of 2009 and after. Less that one percent of US electricity generation is from solar, despite the country having enormous solar potential in the South and Southwest and despite the availability of large open spaces on which to mount the panels.

China actually pledged to go on increasing its carbon emissions until 2030, by which time it thinks it will hit its peak and after which its carbon emissions will begin falling. 2030! Game over, climate.

The world will likely put out 40 bn metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014, up from the 36 bn tons common only a few years ago. We’re going in the wrong direction and have been for a very long time. If another 1.2 trillion metric tons goes into the atmosphere, we’re locked into a roughly 4 degrees Fahrenheit increase. All we have to do is 40 bn tons for 30 years to ensure that, and likely soon we’ll be doing much more than 40 annually, so the cutoff will come much earlier than 30 years, maybe even 15. That would be around the time China thinks it might be able to arrange to start reducing its annual emissions.

Although China on the surface might seem to have advantages in moving to renewables, what with an authoritarian central government that can do as it pleases, in fact authoritarian governments also have constituencies. One of China’s is the coal workers and coal company bureaucracy, just like in capitalist Poland or West Virginia.

The tools Obama and Xi announced to get to their limp goals are also unimpressive. Research on carbon capture and sequestration, which is actually dangerous. What if the sequestered carbon leaks? Remember that Cameroon lake? This is just a sop to the coal industry. And research and green trade, which don’t amount to a serious commitment.

It is a sad commentary that this agreement is actually an improvement on previous goals of the two countries. And it is better to have an agreement with firm dates and targets than to have the two carbon monsters take turns hiding behind each other at climate talks. But this agreement isn’t a commitment to reduce carbon emissions on a timescale appropriate to the magnitude of the crisis. It mostly kicks the ball down the road.

The main hope for the world now is that solar panel efficiencies and costs, and battery efficiencies and costs, will fall fast enough to make the governments and their fossil constituencies irrelevant. That is, if solar panels become like iPhones, such that hundreds of millions of people suddenly want and acquire them, then there will be genuine CO2 emissions reductions. That is, if you get this kind of adoption, curve, then there is hope:


In my view, given the kind of research and development being done on photovoltaics and on batteries, this kind of adoption curve for solar panels could well occur starting in only a few years. Once the panels become must-haves, they can spread to millions of households very quickly.

My household has reduced its carbon emissions by several tons this year, between putting solar panels on the house and driving a Volt. If every American cut back 5 tons this year, that would be a reduction of 1.5 billion metric tons, taking us near Obama’s 2025 target ten years early. This reduction is technologically feasible and can be accomplished in ways that actually save a household money over a decade. I would argue that the main obstacle is lack of financing. Obama might want to think about low-interest instruments.

Governments have already proved themselves almost useless in this crisis with a few exceptions (Germany, Scotland and Ethiopia are among the virtuous ones). Much-vaunted corporate capitalism has shown itself sclerotic, leaden, slow and obstructionist rather than agile and efficient — with the exception of some green start-ups.

So if we’re to dodge this bullet it will have to be done from the lab on the one hand and grassroots consumers on the other.

In the meantime, churches, schools and universities ought to be getting their energy from wind turbines or solar panels or both, not coal. They would save money over time and teach congregations and students valuable moral lessons about being good stewards of this beautiful, unique planet.


Related video:

Yingli Solar: “3,000 Solar PV Professionals to Fight Haze on “Singles Day” in China”

13 Responses

  1. “between putting solar panels on the house and driving a Volt. ”

    But here’s the thing: if Americans lived in smaller houses, invested in insulation and thermal windows, lived closer to work and used more public transportation, that would have at least as much of an impact in the near term as rooftop solar panels and overpriced electric cars.

  2. I managed to cut back on fuel oil usage by 25%. I did this by replacing mercury thermostats (these should be illegal because of the mercury and they are incredibly inefficient) with electronic programmable ones. I use space heaters for my bedrooms and just keep the downstairs above 50 degrees at night and 60 degrees during the day. I did this not because of political affiliation but because I save 800 dollars a year.

    I am waiting for solar panels to drop some more. If it gets down to a dollar a watt, I will probably invest in something, and replace my fuel oil system with an electric one.

    • I don’t work 9-5 so my Volt is mostly powered by my solar panels, i.e. free clean fuel.

      Panels have fallen in price 60% so now is the time. Solar City will rent them to you if you don’t want to pay up front

  3. It is utterly amazing how the status quo is dragging their feet on solving the earths climate change problem. T Boone Pickens a few years ago stated, that the world was past the mid point of extracting crude oil. If that is correct, then shouldn’t someone be working on a plan for alternative resources?

  4. Big Energy, that obviously had a stake in Obama in 2008, will only let Obama go so far in the populist direction.

  5. Over 50% of the carbon you put into the atmosphere comes from the dollars you spend that are votes to maintain the animal husbandry industry: “”A person who is vegan will save 1,100 gallons of water, 20 pounds CO2 equivalent, 30 square feet of forested land, 45 pounds of grain and one sentient animal’s life1every day.” link to truthdig.com

      • Snark, right? Of course it already is “their air.”

        The people who profit from burning sh_t, extracting carbon and basing their lives on burning more of it, already own the right to pollute, to externalize the costs of that into your lungs and mine, your coastline and mine, your tornado alley and mine. They have and have had and will continue to have the clout to warp our collective need for a social structure, “rule of law” and similar frauds included, into a system of laws and regulations and practices that “legalizes” dumping toxins into the common necessities, air, water, economic transactions of all sorts. You know the TPP and TTAP will further “legalize” the theft-by-initial-assignment-of-“right” to the user-uppers. Who individually, can’t say it often enough, have zero personal-threat incentive to do anything but more of the same. Since they are insulated, by “law” and the protections that wealthy indifference can purchase, from any of the consequences of their creation, participation and continuation of “business as usual” to the dead-end point (for us ordinary mopes only: the Few have their escapes — either into comfortable old-age and death, or some Elysium, or like the billionaire longevity projects in the works, link to thedailybeast.com, into cyber-bodies or deep space). Hence they can laugh, all the way to the (offshore) bank, at all us earnest types who maybe care about our surroundings and our “Soylent Green” posterity…

        We seem collectively to be wired all wrong, plumbed all wrong, framed all wrong to survive. But a very Few of us will really indulge all their whimsies and senses, link to nytimes.com, behind walls of impunity, at the expense of the rest of us ordinary people who don’t seem to be able to organize to protect ourselves, from the Few and our own predilections and impulses…

  6. If part of the US-China deal involved bringing in massive amounts of Chinese solar panels, that would do something, but it would cause Congress to scream bloody murder. Besides, the factories themselves would produce more pollution than an American factory producing the same panels.

    In fact, much of China’s emissions are the result of making cheap junk to sell to Americans that will have to be replaced in a few months by other cheap junk. But then, much of America’s emissions are enabled by China buying dollars to prop up their value and keep us buying cheap junk. You have to go after the problem there, but a war would actually be the fastest way to end trade between the US and China.

  7. Okay, so we all understand that the handshake between China and President Obama was too little, too late and basically irrelevant. Plus, we’ve elected ourselves a Congress that will never, ever come to grips with global warming. Good work, USA! Better start looking for that wormhole out near Jupiter.

    However, I’d prefer to think that this do-almost-nothing agreement is AT LEAST a start, a breaking of the logjam the US has imposed on its political system. For one thing, it’s making our new Republican Congress go crazy (-er?): for years they’d been saying that the US cannot and will not lift a finger unless China (and India) go first. Now, they’ll need to harp on India and try to affirmatively block the legal authorization that the Preident already has to implement changes in environmental policy. It’s really a shame that this agreement didn’t materialize a month before the election; maybe a few Dems would have voted. Today’s Democrats just don’t “do” politics, I guess. Or the Republican undercover foreign policy team got to China first, as they did with Vietnam and Iran.

    But, getting back to the mandatory pessimism. The article cites all kinds of carbon emission figures — where did they come from? Are they calculated, based on US fossil fuel consumption? If so, there is NO accounting for the vast clouds of lost natural gas that we now know are emitted from fracking and other petroleum production sites, and hover over them like a deadly greenhouse shroud. The US isn’t decreasing its emissions; it’s boosting its greenhouse effect exponentially. We may cut back on coal and petroleum USAGE, but if we keep releasing methane at increasing rates, we’re just kidding the Chinese and rest of the world.

  8. The patient is dying!! Quick, bring in more administrators and insurance executives!!!

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