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US and China’s Climate Deal: Leadership or Laggardship?

By Katrina Kelly 

The recent climate deal between the US and China is being hailed as ground-breaking; the pivotal moment that the entire climate community has been waiting on baited breath for. Unfortunately, if you look outside of the American media circus it becomes quite difficult to find the enthusiasm that seems to be building behind Obama’s most recent pledge to climate leadership. Considering the advent of less carbon-dense American gas supplies, it is hard to understand how America and China’s agreement could be anything other than a weak indicator of future climate regimes. Although the US and China’s pledge is important in emphasizing the need to implement carbon-targets, stronger targets are needed to make an impact in global carbon emissions reductions.

Climate change leadership requires a transition in thinking, and a re-conceptualisation of economic success. In order for true leadership to emerge, countries must not only be moving themselves along a path of cleaner development, but must also encourage the transition in thinking amongst other states. Nations must be prepared to increase their energy efficiency standards, which require promoting certain behavioural standards in a given society.  States must also accept limitations on national growth, and understand that the short-term thinking encouraged by discussions of GDP as defining of economic success completely contradicts the long-term evaluation of success needed for sustainable development.

As difficult as achieving all of this may be, it is even more difficult to implement new technologies and innovations when a nation is struggling economically. Efficient energy resources often require a large cash contribution, and changing the behaviours of society requires information that can only be acquired through institutional expansion and even further funding.  For developing countries, the transition to low-carbon development is simply not an option. Fossil fuels are often abundant and cheap, and are used widely and inefficiently in daily life, mainly by way of aging power plants. While scholars are aware of the importance of the inclusion of developing nations in climate agreements, it is marginally easier to argue that most of the emissions reductions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change must come from those with the economic means to achieve them. As two of the world’s largest economies then, the US and China clearly stand as two important players within global climate regimes. For true leadership to emerge, the US and China would need to agree on emissions reductions levels that indicate sincere change and a commitment to the concept of a low-carbon economy. Agreeing to reduction levels that are economically convenient does not convey the commitment needed for other states to follow.

In this aspect then, it’s difficult to see how the US/China climate agreement is exciting. The targets are unimpressive and the commitment details dubious in nature. However, what should be hailed is the leadership of President Obama, who despite facing increasing criticism from a Congress now dominated by Republicans, has managed to get the world’s second biggest emitter, and the arguably most necessary ally, to commit to a lasting commitment alongside the United States. Considering Hillary Clinton’s previous indications of climate discussions with the People’s Republic of China, this becomes even more impressive.  We must not confuse climate leadership with political leadership. While President Obama’s political leadership is to be welcomed, his climate leadership falls well short of what is necessary if the world is avoid the dire scenario described in the most recent prediction issued by the International Panel on Climate Change

Katrina Kelly’s is a PhD candidate 2014 at the University of Nottingham, and a project manager at the World Energy Council.  Her research dissertation is titled “Leaders and Laggards in carbon policy: Comparing paths of the EU and US in global emissions reductions”. Please contact for more information.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inAsia and PacificChina

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