Leading nations begin to act on climate change

Moves by the US and China to curb emissions are a good start, but not enough to ensure a win at next year’s Paris climate talks.

Katie Kouchakji

As the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs), actions by the United States and China to curb these pollutants are vital if the world is serious about averting dangerous climate change. Unfortunately, the only existing international treaty for climate change – the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – does not apply to these two powerhouses: the US opted out since the treaty did not place emissions curbs on China, or any other developing nation.

But the policies of yesterday need not be the policies of tomorrow. In December 2011 it looked as though the international process, via the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, had turned a corner with an agreement to finalise a new treaty – of a to-be-determined legal nature – in December 2015 at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. Significantly, representatives from more than 190 countries agreed in Durban that this new agreement would apply to all countries, irrespective of socioeconomic status.

‘The initiatives don’t address some of the fundamental issues that are likely to exercise: the common denominator depth of cuts, the timeline and trajectory for achieving it; the nature and extent of “burden sharing” post Durban; and debates about the form, and exact legal force and enforceability mechanisms, of an eventual agreement’

Conor Linehan
Head of Environment & Planning Group, William Fry; Vice-Chair, IBA Climate Change Justice and Human Rights Task Force

As time has passed, however, it has become increasingly apparent that the Paris climate deal next year will not be ‘top-down’ like Kyoto, but will instead be driven by actions undertaken by countries or regions in the intervening years – a large proportion of which use carbon pricing such as a cap-and-trade system. The World Bank’s May 2014 report, State and Trends of Carbon Pricing, found that 62 jurisdictions had a carbon price – and more are planned, including in Mexico, South Africa and South Korea.

The World Bank report noted that the second-largest emissions trading system (ETS) after that of the EU is in China, with six pilot systems in place at the time the report was written (the seventh began operations in June). These regional efforts, which began in 2012, are the testing ground for a Chinese national ETS, expected during the next Five-Year Plan period (2016–2020). The climate change community is eagerly watching to see if the country delivers on this good start.

June also saw the release of the long-awaited emissions standards for existing power plants in the US. President Obama is using an executive order (and section 111(d) of the US Clean Air Act) to cut the country’s emissions, of which the power sector accounts for around 40 per cent, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Under the new standards, each state can use the method it thinks best to meet its federally mandated emissions target – including emissions trading, which is already operational across California’s economy and in the power sector in nine north-east states, via the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. More states are expected to join these programmes in a bid to comply with the standards: in April, Washington State announced plans to introduce legislation for a cap-and-trade system next year, and others are expected to follow its lead.

The US proposal, while likely to face lengthy court battles, is just the opening salvo in the fight to decarbonise the US economy. And it’s a much needed step: in 2012 – the most recent year for which the EIA has released data – coal-burn accounted for 74 per cent of the sector’s two billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. In 2013 coal use in the US rose byv4.6 per cent compared with 2012, according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2014, released in June. This is in spite of the country’s shale gas boom, which has dramatically lowered the price of less carbon-intensive natural gas.

However, this proposal to target the energy sector – which is, admittedly, the sector responsible for the greatest share of emissions – applies to just one section of the economy; 60 per cent of US emissions remains uncovered by existing or proposed legislation.

The problem is this: neither US efforts nor China’s plans are enough to guarantee success in at the climate conference in Paris next year. Both initiatives are in their infancy and it remains to be seen how they will play out. Not to mention that neither will enter into force before December 2015. Will the rest of the world accept a promise for action, when such promises have been broken before?

There are also the issues of comparability of efforts and the notion of burden sharing – that is, how much of the emissions reduction load each nation should be responsible for – to grapple with in Paris.

‘I think that those initiatives, while welcome, don’t address some of the fundamental issues that are likely to exercise – not just the US and China – but many other participants at the talks: the common denominator depth of cuts, the timeline and trajectory for achieving it; the nature and extent of “burden sharing” post-Durban; and debates about the form, and exact legal force and enforceability mechanisms, of an eventual agreement,’ says Conor Linehan, a partner at William Fry in Dublin and Vice-Chair of the IBA Climate Change Justice and Human Rights Task Force.

That’s not to dismiss them altogether: both moves show that the need to act on climate change is being understood, which offers world leaders breathing space to strike a deal. And with more and more nations taking action on climate change – be it via an ETS, carbon tax, renewable energy programmes or energy efficiency improvements – the time could be right.

More worrying, and a threat to talks at Paris, is the situation unfolding in Australia. The country has the dubious honour of being the first nation to dismantle a functioning carbon pricing programme and is refusing to put climate change on the agenda for the G20 Summit, which they are hosting later this year.

Australia is not the only fossil-fuel driven economy walking away from climate action: Canada is also reluctant, as evidenced by its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period at the 11th hour. However, this could prove to be a case of swimming against the tide – with the US and China on board, it is surely only a matter of time until that tide is too strong to fight.

Katie Kouchakji is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at katie@kkecomms.com