Energy & Environment

The good, bad and ironic in China’s climate change pledge

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The recently announced (and roundly celebrated by the Obama administration and many environmentalists) “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” climate emissions “pledge” by China to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has been deemed a “huge confidence builder” by our State Department. Is it? Should it be considered such? It’s always complicated, so let’s really understand the good, the bad and the very ironic.

{mosads}First, let’s take the good. The pledge addresses an all-of-the-above approach and considers regions of China that will be impacted quite differently. This is a mature view that recognizes regional production and consumption of energy and that the makers and the takers of China’s energy are treated equitably. (We should be so savvy with our Environmental Protection Agency as we take the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, and other regional models and consider them as applicable for the entire United States.) The pledge also speaks directly to the need for efficiency advancements with the use of coal consumed in power and chemical production and that significant investment in clean coal technology is a must to truly address climate change. How true this is — and the Chinese have already adopted a fundamental perspective that carbon dioxide capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) is critical to the energy security and environmental impact of coal usage. CCUS’s essential component is utilizing carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery, chemicals production, etc., and then safely and permanently storing the carbon dioxide so it is not released into the atmosphere. (Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, and carbon taxes are a nonstarter in China, as the Chinese have rejected the slow and inefficient deployment of CCS as a waste-disposal model over the past 10 years and recognize the value of CCUS.) And finally, the pledge is comprehensive and commits to transportation reductions, voluntary industry reductions, research and development spending, and comprehensive critical targets. The scope and breadth is impressive.

But let’s address the bad — the reality of the impact that those environmentalists celebrating this pledge have either ignored or simply do not understand. The pledge is a promise (not legally binding) by China to peak their carbon dioxide emissions sometime between now and 2030 and seek to do it “as soon as possible.” The pledge is to “lower [carbon dioxide] emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 60-65 percent from their 2005 level.” Sound a bit complicated? Is it a real reduction in carbon dioxide for Earth? Yes, it is complicated, and no, it is not a reduction.

Neither the U.N., the International Energy Agency nor any other agency projecting global energy or emissions expect China’s emissions to peak prior to 2030. The real net effect of this pledge is that as China’s GDP continues to grow at the pace its government has projected, carbon dioxide emissions from China will double by 2030. It is an intensity-based greenhouse gas (GHG) target that recognizes growth and the economy. Today, China emits nearly 30 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, and by 2030 it will emit nearly 50 percent. Today, the U.S. emits 15 percent and has committed to an absolute 26 to 28 percent reduction in all GHGs by 2030.

Now let’s examine the irony of the pledge and its celebration by the U.S. administration. President George W. Bush announced an identical carbon dioxide intensity-based GHG rule for the U.S. in February 2002 that would have increased actual U.S. emissions by 12 percent over 2002 to 2012. Secretary of State John Kerry said as a senator in 2002, “The president, with all due respect, just can’t have it both ways. You can’t back policies that will increase pollution and then turn around and in your rhetoric mislead the American people by claiming to be helping the environment.”

Bush was accused of misleading the people, but Kerry and Obama are celebrating the Chinese pledge? Worse yet, the U.S. is pledging that its absolute carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced with no regard to GDP growth or our economic desire to grow. Actually and ironically, this U.S. commitment is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as our global competitiveness in energy costs will surely be worsened. It is not clear why Kerry finds the China commitment so exciting and such a “huge confidence builder.”

In all of this political doublespeak, one clear message cannot be lost on us all: Politicians and clever spin-masters cannot hold a candle to real transformative technology. The Chinese recognize they will be using coal and natural gas, have recognized clean coal efficiency and that technologies such as CCUS really do mitigate carbon dioxide emissions in fossil-fuel applications. They also recognize that growing economies cannot hobble themselves with an energy policy that has no fundamental support of necessary energy security or affordability — having only an environmental, single-note carbon dioxide approach. Kerry has been outspoken around Washington in his efforts to eliminate the words “clean coal technology” in our Department of Energy research and development efforts. Why? It’s critical globally! And we are to believe that this administration is not waging a war on coal?

Transformative technology — CCUS for coal and natural gas — is absolutely critical and necessary if we have any chance to achieve our climate goals. Let’s celebrate real progress through research and development investment and stop politicizing Chinese pledges for increasing carbon dioxide emissions as political victories.

McConnell is executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University and a former assistant secretary of energy at the Department of Energy from 2011 to 2013.

Tags Carbon dioxide carbon dioxide capture, utilization and storage CCUS China Clean coal Climate change Climate change mitigation Department of State Environmental Protection Agency EPA Greenhouse gas John Kerry State Department U.N. U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change United Nations

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