The morning after the US-China climate announcement (updated)

Never have I seen such a wave of social media euphoria as the one that swept through my Twitter and Facebook feeds this time yesterday, as news broke about the US-China deal on climate change. But now that it’s the morning after, a few quick reflections.

China’s 2030 peak emissions date may be a big deal politically, but it won’t help the climate much. Since 2000, China’s carbon emissions from energy consumption have risen from 3 billion tonnes to around 9 billion tonnes today. They’ve tripled in ten years. China’s per capita emissions are now bigger than the EU’s (though still a long way off those of the US). So forgive me for not cracking open champagne at the news that China may be willing to taper off this unbelievable rate of emissions growth in another sixteen years. I admit that the 20% renewables target is a big deal – right now China’s at about 7% – but even this still leaves plenty of space for emissions to rise as energy demand and coal capacity continue to grow.

On the US side, too, all the hype about a 26-28% cut below 2005 levels by 2025 strikes me as overdone. Obama had already committed to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. He made that announcement five years ago, at Copenhagen. So 26-28% by 2025 does no more than more or less extrapolate that forward another five years (in fact, as Maarten Hajer at PBL points out, yesterday’s commitment is actually a little less ambitious than the forward curve implied by the 2009 promise) – there’s no actual ratcheting up of ambition.

The policies and measures unveiled in yesterday’s US-China announcement are awfully thin. There’s a “renewed commitment” to technology cooperation, with no funding numbers attached. Some stuff about a demonstration project on carbon capture and sequestration, which people have been talking about for over a decade now – it’s starting to sound like nuclear fusion. More cooperation on reducing HFC emissions, which do have massive global warming potential, but are incredibly easy for China to reduce – cynics like me think that China was actively inflating them so as to score Clean Development Mechanism permits, and is only now talking about a phase out because demand for CDM permits has collapsed along with EUETS prices. There’s a “climate smart low carbon cities initiative” which is basically a plan to convene a summit. And that’s pretty much it.

It’s kind of amazing how European progressives coo about anything China does on climate, but give Europe and the UK zero credit for the vastly more impressive lead they’ve taken on climate change. There was a particular classic of the genre yesterday in an extraordinary blog post on LabourList by Sunny Hundal that called the targets of the US (which work out at 16% below 1990 by 2025) and China (emissions can rise for another 16 years) “historic” while slating the EU (40% below 1990 by 2030) as – get this – “weak and lazy”.

Even more breathtakingly, the post was entitled “It’s time Labour joined the world in fighting climate change”, without at any point mentioning the small matter that Labour passed legislation – so far retained by the Conservatives – that (a) commits the UK to an 80% emissions reduction by 2050, (b) frames this in terms of a legally binding carbon budget, and (c) mandates an independent Climate Change Committee – of scientists, mark you, not politicians – to monitor progress and advise on whether the carbon budget needs to be tightened. (“Where is Britain? Nowhere”, the post concludes.) Would that the world followed Britain’s lead by setting a global carbon budget, and creating an independent monitoring body.

On which note – regular readers will have seen this coming several paragraphs ago – this is still, as it always has been, about the need for a global carbon budget, which (as usual) no-one is talking about. Instead, the UNFCCC process lumbers on, with its usual focus on something called “momentum” (whatever that is) as opposed to actual results. Not one person I know in the UN process expects Paris to agree a global plan for limiting warming to 2 degrees. Not one.

I was talking last night to a veteran climate negotiator from a developed country government, who observed that the climate priesthood has, for years, been having far too nice a time meeting up every six months for drinks and per diems. No one wants the party to end. There is no sense of urgency. No real deadline. She’s absolutely, 100% right. I started going to UN climate summits when I was a student. Next summer I’m 40. And the conversations in Warsaw last winter had basically not moved on since the first one I went to in the Hague a decade a half ago.

The only way this will ever end, she continued, is if policymakers give them six months to work out a solution, and make clear at the outset that at the end of this period, they can all piss off home. For good.  She’s right about that too. This is what they should agree, on a full global basis. I’m really not sure what else there is to say.

Updated: news is just emerging that there are some flickers of discussion of a carbon budget in the UN process. This has the potential to be a much bigger deal than the US-China announcement – more on this later.