McCain and climate – trouble ahead

by | May 12, 2008

John McCain’s out on the campaign trail today promoting his green credentials, but its clear that his climate change proposals would put a McCain administration on collision course with many, maybe most, of its international partners.

Here’s McCain’s headline promise on climate:

By the year 2012, we will seek a return to 2005 levels of emission, by 2020, a return to 1990 levels, and so on until we have achieved at least a reduction of sixty percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050.

At first glance, this sounds pretty compatible with the ranges that the Kyoto countries (almost all countries bar the US) agreed to be ‘guided by’ in their side negotiation at Bali. Following the lead of the IPCC, these countries said that:

Global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) need to peak in the next 10-15 years and be reduced to very low levels, well below half of levels in 2000 by the middle of the twenty-first century.

McCain’s 60% by 2050 is ‘well below half’ of course (especially when you note the different baseline). But that fails to take into account how Americans emit at the moment. The US will have to cut much further and faster than McCain realises, if we are going to hit the global target.

Breaking out emissions on a per capita basis shows why:

  • According to Nick Stern (pdf), per capita emissions will need to be around 2-2.5 tonnes gigatons CO2e by 2050, based on a population of 9 billion people.
  • The US government’s own stats, however, show that its per capita emissions were around 24 tonnes gigatons in 2006 (based on a population of 300 million).
  • McCain’s 60% reduction would take them down to just under 6 tonnes gigatons, based on a population that had grown to 420 million people (and obviously higher if population growth is less rapid.

In other words, the US would still be two to three times above the global average in 2050. By mid-century, under McCain’s plan, its per capita emissions would be higher than China’s – at around 5 tonnes gigatons – are today!

Despite this, McCain is promising to take a hard line on international negotiations. “China, India, and other developing economic powers in particular are among the greatest contributors to global warming today – increasing carbon emissions at a furious pace – and they are not receptive to international standards,” he warns.

This needs to change, he thinks, with the US dictating the pace:

The United States will lead and will lead with a different approach – an approach that speaks to the interests and obligations of every nation.

Shared dangers mean shared duties, and global problems require global cooperation. The United States and our friends in Europe cannot alone deal with the threat of global warming. No nation should be exempted from its obligations. And least of all should we make exceptions for the very countries that are accelerating carbon emissions while the rest of us seek to reduce emissions.

(This quote reminded me of the famous line from the US delegation in Bali: “The US will lead and continue to lead but leadership requires others to fall in line and follow.”)

Like the French, McCain favours sanctions on China and India is they do not fall into line and take emissions cuts (“a cost equalization mechanism to apply to those countries that decline to enact a similar cap”). Tech transfer, meanwhile, is offered as a sweetener.

Now this may play well on the campaign trail, but the Chinese are certain to refuse to accept an emissions cap now, although they are amenable to the idea of shifting onto a low carbon growth path and accepting a cap later. And they’re going to be especially resistant to ‘leadership’ that would see the average American citizen given the ‘right’ to emit more than his Chinese counterpart right up to 2050 and beyond.

Finally, let’s compare McCain’s plan to return US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This is:

  • Far less than the reduction the Clinton administration agreed under Kyoto – 7% below 1990 levels by 2012 (never ratified of course).
  • Nothing like as ambitious as the EU’s unilateral commitment – 20% reduction by 2020 on a 1990 baseline; 30% or more if its partners join in.
  • A long way from what the Kyoto club was talking about in Bali – industrialized countries (taken as a group) to cut by 25-40% by 2020, with developing countries to do their bit as well.

These are the targets that will be hashed out over the next 18 months or so. With McCain in the White House, and unless he changes his tune once elected, it’s very hard to see how Copenhagen could lead to a lasting climate agreement…

Related post: After the euphoria.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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