Obama, China and Climate

12 November 2009

Obama, China and Climate

By Gwynne Dyer

President Barack Obama’s Asian trip has been on the political calendar for many months. So has the climate summit at Copenhagen in December. And I strongly suspect that Obama’s people originally planned to announce a US-Chinese deal on climate during his three-day visit to China next week, so he could take it with him to Copenhagen as the template for a broader deal between all the “old rich” countries and the rapidly developing ones.

The Chinese leadership is ready for this deal, because it is very frightened by the prospect of climate change. China gets hit harder and earlier than most countries by global warming, and the risk of political destabilisation is real. All Beijing needed was a serious commitment to emission cuts by the United States and the deal would have been done.

It would have been a bold deal in which the United States acknowledged that the old industrialised countries have to take deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions up front, because they are the ones who created the current crisis by burning fossil fuels for two hundred years. They didn’t mean any harm by it, but they did it, and they are rich because they did it.

Rapidly developing countries like China, India, and Brazil, on the other hand, have only recently begun to pump out carbon dioxide on a large scale. So they would only be required to cap their emissions at the present level or somewhere close to it.

Since the developing countries are not willing to stay poor, they must still be allowed to go on growing their economies even after they agree to cap their emissions. That means they will need a lot more energy, but none of it can come from fossil fuels if they are to stay under the cap. It must come from wind farms or solar arrays or nuclear plants, all of which are more expensive than cheap and dirty coal-fired power plants.

So who pays the difference? The rich countries do, or at least they pay for a lot of the difference, because it is they who created the conditions in which newly industrialising countries must install expensive clean power rather than the dirty power that the rich countries themselves used to climb the ladder long ago.

If the United States and China had gone to Copenhagen next month with that deal in hand, everybody else might have climbed aboard, but that’s not going to happen. The political timetable in the United States got in the way. After eight years of denial and obstruction on climate issues under the Bush administration, even the Chinese need a solid US commitment on emission cuts before they sign a climate deal, and Obama cannot yet deliver that.

It is taking much longer than the Obama administration thought to get major legislation through Congress. Even if the health-care legislation finally passes in a form that more or less fulfills Obama’s hopes for it, that will mean that he only got two major pieces of new legislation out of the Congress in 2009. (The other was the $787 billion stimulus package to fight the recession.)

Congress will not pass legislation imposing cuts on greenhouse gas emissions in the United States this year, so Obama goes to Beijing empty-handed. The Chinese will not deliver on their part of the deal until they are sure that Obama can deliver on his part. So the world’s two largest emitters, the United States and China, will arrive in Copenhagen next month without having made any official commitment to curb their emissions.

With no bilateral US-Chinese deal to serve as a framework for a wider agreement, the Copenhagen conference is very unlikely to succeed. How upset should we be about that?

If failure this December means permanent failure, then we should be very upset indeed, but the problem is one of scheduling, not of bad intentions. Given another six months or so, Obama will probably succeed in getting Congress to agree to serious cuts in US greenhouse-gas emissions.

The cuts will not be as deep as he wants, or as much as the other developed countries are willing to make, but they will probably be enough to resurrect a US-Chinese deal. It would have been much better, therefore, if the climate conference had been scheduled for December, 2010, but nobody knew that at the time.

The best thing to do now would be to postpone the Copenhagen meeting for a year, but it has become a diplomatic juggernaut that cannot be stopped. The next-best thing is to ensure that it fails now, leaving the way open for a follow-on conference that revisits the issue in twelve or eighteen months’ time with a much better chance of success.

The best is often the enemy of the good, but patching together an inadequate climate treaty at Copenhagen just to avoid the stigma of failure would repeat the mistake of 1997, when the botched Kyoto accord locked the world into an unambitious climate policy for fifteen years. If the problem lies mainly in the political timetable in the United States – and it does – then just change the international schedule to deal with that reality.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“It is…recession”; and “The cuts…time”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.