Nuclear plants are pretty hard to miss.

Photographer: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Don't Just Trust China on Climate

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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I wrote Wednesday that this week's agreement between the U.S. and China to reduce carbon emissions was a smart move -- not least because it pressures congressional Republicans not to block President Barack Obama's proposed rules on power plant emissions, without which the U.S. can't uphold its side of the deal.

In response, I got a flood of e-mails from readers, most of whom made the same arguments: that the U.S. is foolish to assume China will keep its commitments; and because China only agreed to begin reducing its emissions by 2030, it doesn't need to change course until then -- leaving the U.S. to make its own reductions for nothing.

Many of those same readers also insisted that climate change is a hoax, so it's unclear how many of them would support any emissions agreement, regardless of the conditions it sets. But their arguments raise valid questions: What reason is there to think that China will honor its pledge -- and will we even know, before 2030, whether it intends to?

I put those questions to the White House, which responded with a few points. (The administration insisted that because the people I talked to were policy staff and not spokespeople, I not identify them by name or quote them directly.)

First, for China's emissions to level off by 2030, it's going to have to start moving right away. Those emissions are growing at about 5 percent a year; avoiding severe economic disruption means that before those numbers can level off, they need to slow down, and huge levels of new renewable-energy capacity needs to come online. So the argument that China can do nothing until just before 2030, while still claiming to be honoring its commitment, is incorrect.

Second, there are a number of milestones over the next year that will test China's pledge. Those include:

-- The government's next five-year plan for its economy, for 2015-2020, which will need to lay out how China intends to meet its commitment on emissions.

-- China's report under the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change, which will show its emissions by sector.

-- China's commitments at the UN climate summit in Paris, which should include more details on the targets announced this week.

If any of those reports or commitments don't reflect the reductions China pledged this week, and the steps needed to reach them, it'll be a signal that the country isn't serious about the deal.

Third, there's no need to take China's word for the changes it's making to its energy sector. The White House staff I spoke with pointed out that it's not hard to count the new nuclear power plants China builds -- or new wind turbines, or new large-scale solar power installations. If construction doesn't ramp up soon, it means China isn't keeping its pledge.

So the U.S. will know whether China is honoring its agreement -- not in a decade, or even in a few years, but arguably within the next few months. And if it looks like China's reneging, the Obama administration or its successor can decide whether, and how, to change U.S. policy in response.

The administration staff I spoke with expressed strong doubts that China will undercut this deal. If that calculation is wrong, we'll find out, and quickly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net