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Obama's Legacy #2: Taking Credit For the Inevitable

November 29, 2018.

The Climate Deal with China

The climate deal announced by Obama and Xi Jinping in Beijing on November 12, 2014 was an important preamble to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. The striking part of the deal was Xi's promise that China's CO2 emissions would peak by 2030.

Wow! China had publicly committed to a specific emissions target. The pundits and the press greeted it with effusive praise; they called it historic, extraordinary, remarkable, and a diplomatic coup for Obama.

In fact, the deal was pure theater: an image-boosting public relations victory for both leaders that left the path of CO2 emissions unchanged. It enabled Obama to pad his legacy with a diplomatic win and to bolster his environmental credentials. But in terms of the impact on climate change, the deal was all "hot air." To understand why, a little background is required.

Obama's was in office less than a year when the climate conference in Copenhagen ended in failure. In the run-up to the 2015 Paris Conference, the scientific community warned that climate change was speeding-up; for each year of delay in reducing emissions, the risk of climate catastrophe, and the cost of preventing it, would increase exponentially. Therefore, the Paris conference was billed as the very last chance to cap global warming at the critical threshold of 2°C.

So, for the Paris Conference to be deemed a success, it would have to forge an agreement in which all nations commit to legally binding emission targets. But low-income nations, especially China and India, presented a huge problem: they had been exempted from mandatory emission cuts by previous treaties; yet they are mostly responsible for the continuing upward trend in global CO2 emission. So without the cooperation of these major CO2 polluters, the Paris Conference was destined to fail.

Given these circumstances, it's not surprising that the 2014 Climate deal was lavished with praise it didn't deserve. The media's applause was unwarranted for two reasons:

1. China's pledge that its emissions would peak by 2030 was a fait accompli. The acclaim it received was based on the myth that it represented a quantum leap in China's commitment to curb CO2. But in truth, Xi was merely acknowledging an outcome that was already in the works and would have materialized anyway. The peaking of emissions somewhere around 2030 was preordained by policy commitments and economic trends that were underway years before 2014. That's why, in 2010, President Obama's own National Laboratory was able to forecast a peaking date of 2032, four years ahead of the pledge in Beijing.

forecast of China's CO2 emissions

Nan Zhou, China’s Energy and Carbon

Emissions Outlook to 2050. LBNL, 2011

This forecast was based on observable trends in China's development. The overarching trend, accelerated by Xi Jinping's reform agenda, is China's transition from a smog-belching industrial economy driven by exports and fixed investment to a consumer driven economy emphasizing services and high value manufacturing. That transition fosters a decrease in both energy intensity and CO2 emissions per unit of GDP. Energy efficiency also improves as China modernizes its consumer economy with up-to-date technology. And paving the way to the adoption of renewable energy is the expertise China has acquired as the world's leading producer of solar equipment.

The figure below confirms that Xi's pledge was simply a forward look at China's developmental path. It shows that China's emissions have already started to taper off because major sources of CO2 pollution such as cement and steel production have also leveled, reflecting the slowdown in fixed investment since 2009.

2. Obama's objective wasn't met. The historic importance of the China deal - its value to Obama's legacy - depended on whether the Paris Conference achieved its essential goal: universal acceptance of binding emission targets sufficient to cap global warming at 2°C. Thus, Obama's objective in persuading China to publicly embrace emission targets was to induce other low income nations to play-ball in Paris. Had it worked, Obama could claim credit for a great diplomatic achievement.

Unfortunately, the final Paris Accord failed to deliver on both counts: the emission targets promised by nations were not binding and were woefully insufficient to achieve the 2°C ceiling on global warming. To avoid complete embarrassment and allow the political dignitaries to declare victory, the accord called for a five year reunion at which nations could promise to do better, again, without being bound.

Objectively, the climate deal accomplished nothing of significance. Nevertheless, some historians will add it to the positive column of Obama's legacy because they want to give credit for good intentions. That's okay with me. Obama perceived the problem correctly and did is diplomatic best to minimize the damage. He should be given credit for that.



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