Nothing horrifies the intelligentsia more than President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. But, based on new information on China’s emissions, it increasingly looks like the president made the right call.
Just last week, an analysis from Greenpeace indicated that China’s 2018 carbon emissions were on track to grow at the fastest rate in six years. The study, based on government data regarding the use of coal and other energy sources, shows carbon output rising 4 percent in the first quarter of this year. Analysts are projecting similar gains over the next several quarters.
The weakness of the Paris Agreement was that it was lopsided, requiring little from China and a great deal from the U.S. President Obama committed the United States to reducing carbon emissions in 2025 by 26 to 28 percent, which would have meant a substantial jump in electricity costs.
By contrast, China committed to boosting non-fossil fuels to around 20 percent of its overall energy mix by 2030 (a project already underway) and a “hope” that emissions might peak at that time. As one analyst commented in the New York Times, “What China is pledging to do here is not a lot different from what China’s policies are on track to deliver.”
As vague as its goals were, it is becoming clear that the country is unlikely to meet them. To do so would require sacrificing growth to rein in pollution. Since the Chinese Communist Party has pledged to double China’s 2010 GDP by 2020 and to create a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021, that is extremely unlikely.
Fans of the Paris accord have proudly noted that China’s emissions flattened between 2014 and 2016. But that reported hiatus in Beijing’s long-term carbon growth occurred during a period of economic deceleration. In 2017, with a renewed push for industrial investment and output, emissions again began to grow.
China is key. It is by far the world’s biggest source of carbon emissions, producing more than one quarter of the global total and 81 percent more than the United States. The U.S. is the second-largest; India a distant third.
Unlike China, emissions from the United States have trended lower in recent years. The peak occurred in 2005; overall net emissions in 2016 were 12.1-percent lower than in 2005, and the International Energy Agency reports another drop in 2017.
The main driver of lower emissions in the U.S. has been increased substitution of natural gas for coal in producing electric power. Cleaner natural gas became increasingly competitive with cheap coal thanks to widespread use of newly improved hydraulic fracking techniques.
The United States also implemented higher fuel economy standards for automobiles, but the impact from that measure has been far more limited. Emissions in the electric power sector dropped 25 percent between 2005 and 2016, from 2,401 million metric tons (mmt) to 1,809 mmt.
In transportation, the decline was a more modest 4 percent, from 1,856 mmt to 1,783 mmt. In 2017, according to the IEA, increased use of renewables for power generation was a key contributor to the decline in U.S. emissions.
By contrast, in China, coal use has trended higher recently, driving emissions up. Coal consumption, according to Beijing’s own (questionable) statistics, rose 0.4 percent in 2017, producing some backpedaling among those optimistic about China’s compliance with the Paris accord. Others estimate the increase at between 1 percent and 5 percent.
It is difficult to know, given China’s history of fudging the numbers. In the lead-up to the Paris talks, for instance, it became obvious that China was burning 17 percent more coal than it had admitted, a variance the New York Times described as “immense.”
Make no mistake: China is indeed attempting to reduce the blinding pollution that makes its major cities almost uninhabitable and that routinely shuts down its airports. Officials are ramping up the use of renewables and nuclear power, and they are trying to reduce their power sector’s reliance on coal.
This is not because of President Xi Jinping’s commitment to the Paris Agreement; it is because for several years there have been escalating (illegal) protests about the foul air and water that the political elites in Beijing and Shanghai have been forced to endure.
In a 2015 poll by Pew Research Center, three-quarters of Chinese respondents listed air and water pollution as “very” or “moderately” big problems; only “corrupt officials” ranked higher.
China’s supposed commitment to global emissions reductions is undermined by its sponsorship of coal elsewhere. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that between 2013 and 2016, Beijing spent $15 billion building coal plants outside of China, mainly in countries included in its “One Belt, One Road” project. Another $13 billion is on tap for similar projects.
Eager to score a foreign policy achievement, Obama committed to promises that could have been met only by retarding U.S. growth.
In his speech announcing his withdrawal, President Trump cited a study by National Economic Research Associates that claimed the Paris Agreement would cost the U.S. 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025, including 440,000 in manufacturing and nearly $3 trillion in lost GDP by 2040. All, according to the study, for a 0.2-degree Celsius change in global warming by the year 2100.
Most important, it would have required the U.S. to hobble one of its greatest competitive weapons: its vibrant fossil fuel industries.
China President Xi Jinping was undoubtedly enthusiastic about a deal that demanded few sacrifices by China but that would have cost America dearly in terms of lost growth and income.
When he said at the start of last fall’s 19th party congress: “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests,” he could have been referring to the Paris accord.
Beijing embraces a “China First” view of the world. Thank heavens the U.S. finally has a president who puts his country’s interests first as well.
Published on The Hill