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U.S. and China Are Blowing Smoke on Climate Change

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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There’s a lot of excitement about Barack Obama’s climate change agreement with China. I’m prepared to be excited, too, if someone can convince me that this is going to meaningfully affect climate change.

Climate Change

As I understand the deal, the U.S. pledges to get its carbon emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China agrees to peaking carbon emissions in 2030.  All of which sounds very fine, except for the “Yes, buts”:

  • At least some forecasts already show China’s emissions peaking in 2030. As China’s economy matures, and its population stops growing, its rate of emissions growth will naturally slow. Getting China to agree to something that was maybe going to happen anyway does not seem like a varsity-level diplomatic achievement.
  • America has already achieved half its target thanks to natural gas fracking and the aging-out of older cars and coal plants. So right away, this target seems less ambitious than advertised. 
  • Further dropping carbon emissions is going to mean big declines in the use of coal, and who is going to tell Kentucky and West Virginia, or electricity users in the Ohio River Valley? 
  • Doing this by executive action just means it can be undone by executive action, which seems likely when the above considerations are put on the table. 
  • Does China have the statistical capacity to  measure progress, or the institutional capacity to make enterprises owned by various levels of government comply with any emissions control plan it formulates? People in democratic states tend to overestimate the ability of authoritarian states to force through unpopular policies. And China still can’t get a handle on its air pollution problem, which it clearly really wants to fix.
  • What actually happens if either side fails to meet their targets? Aside from the other party getting all hurt and sad and saying “I’m really disappointed, you know.”

I suppose it’s better than nothing. But it’s not clear to me that the delta between this and “nothing” is that big.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net