Dealing with denial
America's concessions are more real than China's
FIVE years ago next month, disagreement between America and China, the world's biggest greenhouse-gas emitters, scuppered the UN's Copenhagen climate-change conference. On November 11th Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping announced a deal on carbon emissions. This is welcome, with two caveats: China has not conceded much, and Congress will do its best to prevent America from delivering what the president has promised.
Because America is responsible for a far larger share of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere than China, it was bound to accept sharper cuts. Even so, it has made big concessions. America had previously signed up to a cut of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. This looks achievable because emissions are already falling. The new agreement is for a 26-28% cut by 2025, which would require a doubling in the pace of cuts after 2020.
China has agreed that its emissions will peak in 2030, and that the percentage of non-fossil fuels in its energy consumption will rise to 20% by 2030. Just getting a date out of the Chinese is an achievement, but American negotiators had been aiming for 2025. More important, the date the Chinese have agreed to may not be so different from what would have happened without a deal. Earlier this year He Jiankun of Tsinghua University reckoned that China's carbon emissions would peak by “around 2030”, as economic growth is slowing and urbanisation will have mostly run its course by then.
The agreement gives both sides plenty of wriggle room, referring to the countries' “best efforts” and their intentions to reach their targets. Because it is not a treaty, it does not have to be ratified by Congress. But for America to meet its new targets, both Congress and the Supreme Court would have to leave the federal government's current efforts to cut carbon emissions, which involve issuing regulations under the Clean Air Act, well alone.
Those efforts are in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which many Republicans would like to abolish altogether. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has already made it clear that it would like to roll back greenhouse-gas regulations issued by the EPA; the new Republican Senate will probably agree.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, comes from Kentucky, a coal-producing state, and has already attacked the deal. “This unrealistic plan, that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs,” he said. Senator Jim Inhofe, who is likely to head the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has called climate change “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, and compared the EPA to the Gestapo.