Kyoto’s Fallen Giants: Can they Step it Up Fast Enough?

For the first time since the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, international cooperation on climate change is building momentum, with a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Lima last December and another major conference scheduled for 2015 in Paris. At the same time, however, it came as a surprise to many when this past November, China and the United States made a bilateral climate deal at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Beijing. Both countries promised major emissions cuts: the United States pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025, while China said it would decrease emissions by same proportion by 2030. The international press has heralded this as a “historic” agreement between usually antagonistic world powers, interpreting  agreement as a sign of progress. However, the supportive media coverage has failed to examine the historical background that says otherwise.

The US-China bilateral deal is not historically unprecedented, and it’s certainly not going to produce the intended results. Beginning with their disengagement from the Kyoto protocol in 1997, the US and China have a track record of signing unenforceable deals and opting out of their more restrictive aspects in order to protect their economies at the expense of the environment. The new US-China climate agreement is designed to dampen public outcry over climate inaction. By engaging in an agreement solely between the two largest carbon emitters in the world, the United States and China are able to make lofty and unrealistic claims without any sort of global accountability for their actions. Thus, at a time when climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts need to move forward to meet the dangers of the next century, the APEC US-China climate agreement is nothing new and nothing to celebrate; it is simply an effort to disguise to the carbon giants’ continued inaction on climate change.

To understand why the United States and China have historically shirked from multilateral climate change commitments, we need to closely examine where it all began, with the Kyoto protocols of 1997. The protocol, an addition to the UNFCCC, was based on the premise that the countries historically responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions should be held accountable for reducing emissions in the future. Developed states like the United States, Canada, and most of the member states of the European Economic Area agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas levels by at least 5 percent below their 1990 levels by roughly 2012.

Although the US was actively involved in the drafting of the protocol and introduced important policies like the emission trading schemes (ETS), Congress members argued that the annex classification system, which identifies the developed countries most responsible for reducing emissions, was unfair to currently developed industrial nations such as the US and thus the Senate failed to ratify the treaty. By protecting the purse rather than joining a historic, global, and legally binding treaty on climate change, the Senate and the United States set a precedent for ‘going it alone’ instead of leading global treaties, preferring a hands-off approach and domestic focus throughout the decade that followed the protocol.

Some American concerns about fairness have been realized since 1997. Kyoto signatories decided, after the conference, that emission reduction goals did not apply to developing countries, including major greenhouse gas emitters like China and India, since they still had room to industrialize. Eighteen years after Kyoto, China has overtaken the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, but remains unregulated as a developing country. This original exemption has given China the freedom to emit larger and larger amounts of greenhouse gases following the explosion of industrial capacity  in the 1990s. The Kyoto commitment period and China’s exemption under the international treaty ended in 2012. A new agreement, presumably reflecting China’s new status as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, will likely be produced at the Paris climate summit in December 2015.

The two climate change giants— the US and China— signaled publicly months before announcing their joint agreement that they would not ratify any global treaty in Paris that would legally commit them  to reduce carbon emissions. The climate deal reached in Beijing seems to signal a new willingness to curb carbon emissions, but the fact remains that a US-China agreement is only mimicry of Kyoto’s regulation, a non-binding agreement free from broader global accountability. China and the United States are reaffirming the precedent of isolation and making massive promises without any meaningful level of responsibility, using the agreement as an excuse to avoid participating in a global emission reduction agreement.

By disengaging from international treaties, China is able to make lofty claims without substantial evidence to back them up. President Xi Jinping of China publicly announced that by 2030, 20 percent of China’s energy will be renewable, which seems outlandish for a country that is currently the planet’s  largest coal producer and coal consumer (China accounted for 47.4% of the world’s coal output in 2013 alone). With no global police force to hold China responsible for this goal, these mixed feelings and responses are not surprising.

The United States has reasonably better prospects for engaging in international cooperation, even though the APEC agreement isn’t a significant step forward. The United States pledged in the recent non-binding agreement to cut emissions by at least 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, which is already in line with the targets President Obama promised in the 2009 United Nations Accord and thus does not alter the original national goal by much. The US has also promised to submit this target to the UNFCCC as an “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” no later than the first quarter of 2015. This means a certain level of global policing and credible accountability, though the specifics of this jurisdiction remain vague and should not taken as a solution to the United States’ lack of participation in global emission reduction agreements.

The US-China climate agreement barely improves upon its “business as usual” approach, which is simply not enough to mitigate the local and global impacts projected for the next century. As the countries most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, China and the US need to set the example of true global cooperation and responsibility. Both countries have enormous power to dictate the course climate change will take, and this recent agreement shows a mutual interest in patting each other’s back with nothing to back it up—an interest in avoiding the hard work of climate change mitigation by expanding their accountability internationally. It’s time for China and the United States to become leaders and set up the framework for a true global partnership on climate change—because, let’s face it, there’s absolutely no time to lose.