China promises to pollute as much as possible

Obama has just signed a climate change deal with China. Essentially,

  • The US agrees to cut its emissions by 30% by 2030 from the 2005 baseline.
  • China agrees to have its emissions peak in 2030, and to have 20% of energy come from non-fossil fuels.

The US target is basically just what the EPA is mandating anyway under the Clean Air Act. US emissions have fallen substantially since 2005, largely because unconventional natural gas has lead to massive coal-to-gas switching, which is a much cleaner fuel. There would be even more switching if states didn’t impose such restrictions on fracking. Ironically, many environmentalists oppose the technologies that have done the most to reduce US emissions: nuclear and fracking.

But what’s strange here is the Chinese side of the deal. This seems spectacularly badly designed. It’s basically a cap on all post-2030 emissions at the 2030 level. Which means they’re incentivised to pollute as much as possible in 2030, to give themselves a more generous cap. It literally encourages them to stockpile coal so they can burn many years worth of production in 2030. No need to build coal plants – you don’t need to generate electricity with this burning – this is just pollution for the sake of pollution.

Now, probably China won’t just pile up resources and destroy them for the sake of destruction. But there are many more subtle ways they could take advantage of this, like bringing forward any planned coal plants, so ones scheduled to start in 2031 instead start in 2029, or delaying the implementation of emissions-reducing technologies till 2031.

Given the potential for this agreement to be actively harmful, maybe we should be grateful it’s probably purely symbolic.

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