No doubt, you heard the good news. Barack Obama has announced the US is pushing through plans to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Rejoice! Rejoice! We’ve got this climate problem licked – hurrah!
Hold the champagne – and not just because it’s full of bubbles of carbon dioxide – while we do a reality check. This is a distinctly underwhelming development. Let’s pick apart the spin from the reality.
First, the way the story has been told – the US commits to a 32% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030. This is being pushed through by tightening the rules governed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – a federal agency that the US president can instruct, without the need to get past those pesky filibusterers in the dysfunctional, Republican-dominated houses of Congress. The EPA is confident that its rules have a firm legal footing and will be able to withstand the inevitable court challenges.
The effect of the rules will be to clobber the production of electricity using coal. This is certainly “a good thing”. Quite apart from coal’s high carbon-intensity as a means of producing power, it is dirty in other ways – resulting in pollution that is harmful to human health as well as to the environment.
With this commitment, the US can enter the climate negotiations in Paris with its head held high and can push for a global deal to head off dangerous climate change. Whoo-hoo!
The reality – it’s a development that is both fragile and feeble.
Fragile, because unless every occupant of the White House between now and 2030 is a Democrat, it can be unpicked. Remember the bit about the EPA being a federal agency that the US president can instruct? Well, if the president happens to be a climate-denying Republican (the two words are almost, but not completely, interchangeable), he or she could countermand the previous instruction. Of course, the ruling now will inform business decisions and will have a long-lasting effect, regardless of whether the rules are subsequently reversed, but believing that this announcement sets in stone the target of a 32% reduction in emissions requires a degree of optimism that lies somewhere between the heroic and the delusional.
It’s feeble too. A 32% reduction by 2030 sounds quite impressive until you realise it is baselined on 2005 figures. By 2013 (the latest data available) it had already fallen by 15% so the rate of improvement required in the next 15 years is actually slower than what has already been achieved. From 2005-2013, emissions fell at a rate of 2.0% per year – to meet the commitment, emissions would need to fall by just 1.3% per year between 2013 and 2030. And the 32% reduction figure only relates to the emissions from power generation, which makes up less than a third of total US emissions.
How does the rate of committed reductions compare with what is actually required to achieve temperature rises of less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels? According to trillionthtonne.org – a website that tracks these things – to have a better than 50% chance of avoiding such dangerous climate change would require emissions to decrease by more than 2.6% per year. For the rest of time. Globally.
Not that the US should come in for special criticism – the commitments from the EU and from China are similarly insufficient to head off the threat of dangerous climate change.
So why hasn’t this been reported? I think what is going on here is partisanship and a well-intentioned desire to boost the prospects of a meaningful deal in Paris.
Climate-denying Republicans hate this plan (of course), therefore all good climate realists see it as a triumph. But it is a tiny, tiny step in the right direction and climatically immaterial.
Ah yes, you say, but it’s politically important – the world’s hegemonic power has made a commitment, and that creates a foundation upon which greater progress can be made. Let’s not be pessimistic – this could be the start of a global deal.
Well, this emperor has no clothes. The pronouncement reminds me of the words of Neville Chamberlain on his return from the Munich Conference in 1938: “I believe it is ‘peace for our time’. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”
This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.