The Not so Historic US Chinese Deal on Climate Change

by / Friday, 14 November 2014 / Published in Smartgrid-CI Blog

Hailed a “breakthrough” or a “historic event” the agreement on CO2 emission signed between the U.S.A and China is too little and maybe too late from the start.

On November 12, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an agreement on reducing their CO2 emission. According to the agreement, the United States will cut its 2005 level of carbon emissions by 26-28% before the year 2025 and China will “peak” its carbon emissions by 2030 and aim to get 20% of its energy from zero-carbon emission sources by the same year. The US and China represent together more than 42% of the planet’s CO2 emission (about 25.6% for China and 16.5% for the US). Some see this agreement with optimism. The positive side is that the top two polluting countries recognize officially the danger of climate change, their responsibility in global warming, and decide to take action.

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Unfortunately, the event looks great on paper but it is actually far from impressive: According to experts, the U.S. is already on track to meet Obama’s earlier goal to lower emissions 17 percent by 2020. And the administration has little to do with this result. EIA’s data shows That the USA has been on a CO2 emission cut fast track for the past six years and reached a point where its CO2 emission were in 2012 back to their level of 1992. In other words the US more or less applied (without realizing it did) the requirements for limiting CO2 emissions that were the purpose of the 1997 Kyoto protocol that the country always refused to sign. This surprising result has more to do with the development of shale gas along with the explosion of residential solar, and with the massive dumping of gas guzzling vehicles that followed the 2008 economic depression, than with government decisions. The administration however should be credited for its action on grid modernization and for playing a role in changing Americans mindset vis-à-vis climate change.

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China’s CO2 emission trend is not exactly the same. Recently, for the first time, China’s per capita emission has overtaken EU’s and it is unfortunately only a beginning since China’s per PPP GDP capita is only 25% of the EU’s.

The biggest country on the planet has already reached a point where air pollution has become a major social, economic, political problem as well as a massive public health issue.

In Beijing air pollution on a winter day reaches up to 505 micrograms per cubic meters when the safe level recommended by the World’s Health Organization is 25 micrograms per cubic meters only or twenty times less. Pollution in China is already taking its heavy toll on people’s health and also on the economy with car traffic restrictions, the closing of schools and factories on peak pollution days, with up to 50% of diminution of light in the city and with an agriculture submitted to “conditions similar to a nuclear winter”, according to the Guardian.

The actually very modest goal China’s leaders are setting for curbing air pollution through this agreement will not be enough. Curbing? Yes but not before… 2030. In other words, China intends to grow its CO2 emission s for another 15 years. It took less than 20 years for the country to reach the catastrophic situation it is in today. What will the situation look like 15 years from now?

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War against CO2 emission is exactly that, a war. It takes courage and determination to win it. This means making decisions that will make some people unhappy, the fossil fuel industries in particular. A recent study showed that these industries (oil, gas and coal) receive $550B in financial support annually from the developed countries. A big part of these subsidies are earmarked for helping these industries find new sources of fossil energy! This is more than 4 times as much as the $120B received by renewable industries.

It is not easy to figure out how much is spent every year in R&D for renewable energy but it is certain that these amounts are far from being of the same magnitude. A few numbers give an idea of the situation; In the U.S, government spending for solar R&D reached less than $1B a year in the past decade and $1.1B in 2011 only. The American solar research teams have very little to complain about when compared to their European counterparts. The EU’s investment in solar research is no more than a few dozen million € over each five year cycle of the successive so-called “framework programs” the Commission launched at the end of the 1990’s. One wonders what would happen if renewable energy were supported in the same magnitude as fossil energy. No surprise than that the European solar industry is now almost inexistent. Unfortunately the same kind of bad surprise may be waiting for us at the end of the deadlines set up by the US and China in their historic agreement.

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