While most Americans were enjoying the three-day Labor Day holiday weekend, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi signed the Paris agreement on climate change in a ceremony in Hangzhou, China. The Paris agreements is structured in such a way that it is not legally binding. So with no fear of a backlash related to his ability to sign such an agreement, he and the Chinese leader handed each country’s official instrument to join the agreement to U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon.
This does represent a significant step forward for the Paris agreement. In December 2015, more than 190 countries adopted the most ambitious climate change agreement in history. For it to take effect and “enter into force,” at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions need to formally join. The moves by the U.S. and China represent around 40% of global emissions and more than 55 countries have already joined or publicly committed to work toward it this year.
Negotiators structured the Paris agreement in such a way that the countries’ individual targets after 2020 for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would not be binding. So, the final Paris agreement adopts a vague mechanism that requires countries to announce targets and demonstrate progress, essentially relying on peer pressure to hold the signatories’ feet to the fire. The United States has previously committed to publishing its strategy this year, and now China has committed to prepare its strategy as “early as possible.”
Both countries highlighted actions that each side will take domestically to tackle climate change and promote the “transition toward low-carbon and climate-resilient economies.” That’s the environmentally correct way of saying the U.S. will further curtail coal use (See Dateline Washington, p. 12). The U.S. also touted its investment tax credits to generate 100 gigawatts of renewable energy over the next five years, among other moves. Likewise, China highlighted plans to reduce CO2 and energy intensity by 18% and 15%, respectively, as well as increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 15% by 2020.
Whether or not the U.S. honors the commitment hinges on the November election. Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have taken polar opposite positions on climate change. Clinton has vowed to continue Obama’s “war on coal.” Trump has promised to roll back many of Obama’s executive orders, including climate change measures. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s position is ambiguous at best.
Any climate agreement with legally binding targets and the threat of international sanctions would have required the approval of the U.S. Congress. It would not likely pass today, but it might in the future. While the presidential race is important, there are also equally important races in tight Congressional districts. A Republican landslide will not save the coal business, but a Democratic sweep will wreak more havoc for four more years.
Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-in-Chief