Politics & National Security

The U.S.-China Climate “Deal” Does Less Than Has Been Hyped

By Jack Goldsmith
Thursday, November 13, 2014, 8:21 AM

I am (as I have previously noted) no expert on climate change.  But reading the text of the much-vaunted U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change makes me think there is a large gap between how the document is being spun and what it actually does.  “US and China reach historic climate change deal, vow to cut emissions,” said the CNN headline, which was typical of how the press spun the announcement.  “In a historic climate change deal,” the CNN story began, “U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced both countries will curb their greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades.”

But the two countries made no “deal” on emissions reduction, and they made no “vow” about emissions reductions, and they did not announce that they “will” curb greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades.  The key provision (with my emphasis added) is as follows:

The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.  China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.  Both sides intend to continue to work to increase ambition over time.

Here the two sides do not promise to, or state that they will, reduce emissions by a certain amount.  Rather, they state only that they intend to achieve emissions reductions and to make best efforts in so doing.  Whether and how the goals expressed in these intentions will be reached is left unaddressed, and one nation’s intention is not in any way tied to the other’s.  Nor would it be a violation of the “announcement” if either side’s best efforts fail to achieve the intended targets.  As we have seen with a lot with climate change aspirations, intentions are easy to state, and they change over time.  The key point is that this document in no way locks in the current intentions.  In fact it creates no obligations whatsoever, not even soft ones (except that, in a different place, both sides “commit” to “reaching an ambitious … agreement” next year, an empty commitment).  It is no accident that the document is called an “announcement” and not a treaty or pledge or even an agreement.

Nor is this statement from this morning’s NYT right: “Since the deal Mr. Obama made with China calls for the United States to cut its planet-warming carbon pollution by as much as 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, he has effectively placed the obligation on his successor to meet that goal.”  President Obama can use the unilateral tools at his disposal in the next two years to help achieve the intention stated in the announcement.  But the announcement, as just noted, creates no “obligation,” internationally or domestically, and thus cannot impose an obligation on Obama’s successors.

The U.S.-China announcement, in short, is aspirational.  Which is not to say that it is meaningless!  Perhaps it is true that (as the document says) that “by announcing these targets now,” China and the United States “can inject momentum into the global climate negotiations and inspire other countries to join in coming forward with ambitious actions as soon as possible, preferably by the first quarter of 2015.”  The very perception that China and the United States are not serious about reducing carbon emissions has held back other countries from reducing them, so perhaps the appearance of seriousness about such reductions by these two countries, and the appearance of working together on the issues, might spur others to act.  Perhaps, also, future presidents will feel morally bound by the intentions stated here, or perhaps this announcement will change the politics of climate change, domestically or internationally, in a way that future presidents (and other leaders) will find hard to escape.  Or perhaps the United States will elect another president as eager as President Obama is to stopping climate change.  Perhaps some or all of these things will happen.  My only point is that the climate change “announcement” has been hyped.