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Ratifying the Paris climate change agreement

At the recent G20 meeting in Hangzhou, Presidents Obama and Xi announced that they would be ratifying the climate deal reached in Paris last December. Superficially, this is a big deal – if the two largest global emitters of carbon dioxide are prepared to sign up to this agreement, others will surely follow – but is it really going to make a difference?

The main reason this is significant is that, for the first time, it potentially brings all countries into a global agreement to reduce emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, the only previous binding commitment, included only industrialised countries and reflected the situation when the agreement was first drawn up, in 1997. However, it only entered into force in 2005, when sufficient signatories had finally ratified it.

The key stumbling block was the lack of ratification from the USA. Despite then-President Clinton’s strong support, ratification was never put to the vote in the Senate, due to overwhelming opposition. This was primarily due to the unwillingness of American legislators to burden their economy with commitments not shared by major emerging economies, in particular China.

Given China’s rapid growth and role as a major manufacturing and exporting nation, this is not surprising. Indeed, China overtook the US to become the world’s largest emitter of CO2 in 2007, just two years after the Kyoto Protocol finally came into force. And the growth has not stopped; by 2014, China was responsible for about double the total emissions of America and close to a third of the global total, albeit still with a significantly lower level of emissions per capita than in the US.

It has been clear during this entire period that the Chinese government would not compromise the country’s growth and development in the name of climate change mitigation, although it has naturally been happy for policy instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism to be used to transfer international funds for its benefit. Now, though, as the economy is maturing, it suits President Xi to make a gesture that is good for public relations without harming future growth prospects.

So, on the eve of the G20 summit and despite continuing concerns about China’s regional expansionist policies, President Obama committed the US to ratification of the Paris agreement, following President Xi’s announcement of China’s willingness to do so (see, for example, Breakthrough as US and China ratify Paris climate deal). This caused relatively few ripples outside the world of climate change negotiations, and the topic overall merited only a paragraph towards the end of the final G20 summit communique:

“We reiterate our commitment to sustainable development and strong and effective support and actions to address climate change. We commit to complete our respective domestic procedures in order to join the Paris Agreement as soon as our national procedures allow. We welcome those G20 members who joined the Agreement and efforts to enable the Paris Agreement to enter into force by the end of 2016 and look forward to its timely implementation with all its aspects.”

The reason China is now happy to join the party is that it has already done the heavy lifting in terms of development of its primary energy infrastructure. Its annual per capita emissions (7.6 tonnes CO2) now exceed those of the EU (6.7t) (List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions). Having got to this stage, it would be normal to begin taking measures to increase energy efficiency and hence reduce emissions. Over a longer period, the country can also be expected to reduce its dependence on coal, particularly in light of the severe air pollution problems it faces.

So, in essence, China gets brownie points for doing what it would probably be doing in any case. The government plans to reduce energy intensity, have emissions peak by 2030, and have 20% of its energy from non-fossil sources by the same date. In fact, it already has a significant amount of both hydro and nuclear generating capacity and is continuing to build new reactors (and perhaps some in the UK before too long), so these things will tend to happen anyway. It also has a large fleet of wind turbines, but their overall contribution is low in percentage terms, can be accommodated quite easily and will thus also reduce emissions.

The US is in quite a different situation. It is a mature economy with the highest per capita global emissions (with the exception of the Gulf States and Australia). However, it is in the fortunate position of being able to replace coal by domestic shale gas, reducing both energy costs and emissions, so some emissions cuts can be made without suffering any competitive disadvantage.

On the other hand, ratifying the Paris agreement means not only international pressure to meet further targets, but a commitment to work towards ever more stringent policies designed to keep global warming to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures. In the feisty world of American politics, it is quite possible to see the Senate refusing to ratify, whether next year sees President Clinton or Trump in the White House. Presidents may make promises, but they cannot always fulfil them.

If we assume that the US does ratify, it would only take the EU (including, for the time being, the UK) to do the same and the thresholds necessary for the agreement to come into force would be passed. But there is a clear impression at the moment that many governments are going along with this agenda in part because of peer-group pressure but without wholehearted enthusiasm to drive the process forward. In the short-termist world of politics, this is not surprising.

But what is more surprising is the ambition of the Paris accord to limit average temperature rise to 1.5° when there is little likelihood of emissions plateauing before 2030 and the 2° cap proposed at the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009 was believed to be increasingly unreachable. Since there is no acceleration apparent in the rate of reduction in emissions growth, this can mean one of two things. Either hope springs eternal that something can be pulled out the hat in the next decade or two, or there is tacit recognition that the climate sensitivity parameter (the increase in temperature from a doubling of carbon dioxide level) is unlikely to be as high as we have been led to believe. If it is the latter, we may be seeing some welcome reasonableness entering the debate.