By Celia Bottger
The end of 2015 saw a successful conclusion to the Paris Climate Change Conference. Six weeks later, clouds are already on the horizon.
Nearly 200 countries sketched a path in Paris towards global carbon reductions, offering a glimmer of hope that the earth can avoid a climatic disaster.
But threats to the implementation of the emission reductions have already emerged: The prices of Chinese shares and of oil have plunged, while Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency have vowed to resist measures to curb carbon emissions.
What do these developments mean for climate policy?
Ultimately the success of the Paris Conference is in the hands of participating countries, which pledged individually to take steps to cut carbon emissions. As the world’s largest emitters, the United States and China must set examples for the rest of the world with ambitious climate agendas if global disaster is to be averted.
But the stock market drop in China and resistance among Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency to the Obama Administration’s emissions pledges raise questions about the future of the Paris agreement.
Two likely outcomes for the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Washington’s pledge hinges on U.S. President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and tighter fuel-efficiency standards.
Announced unilaterally by the Obama Administration last August in a bid to slash carbon emissions, the Plan for the first time requires power plants to adhere to national pollution standards.
Even during the Paris Conference, Republicans in Congress were proposing legislation that would undercut the Clean Power Plan. Obama threatened to veto these Republican resolutions if they ever reached his desk, but if a Republican is elected president, the U.S. goal of decreasing emissions by 28% could be unattainable.
I envision two likely outcomes for the 2016 presidential elections. One is a continuation of the political environment under the Obama Administration: a Democratic president with a Republican-dominated Congress.
Although this could ensure continued legislative deadlock, current climate policy would remain in place, and new regulations could be introduced via executive action.
This scenario would not ensure a substantial reduction in emissions, but slight cuts would be possible.
China’s economic slowdown means lower carbon emissions.
The second scenario is anathema to those supporting reductions in carbon emissions: a Republican president backed by a Republican Congress. In this instance, Congress could undo Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other policies he has introduced by executive action, undercutting the U.S. pledge.
Either way, it is hard to see how any major legislation will emerge from Congress to be signed by the president. The past seven years of Obama’s presidency have seen little ambitious climate policy, and the next four, whether under a Democratic or Republican president, will be largely the same provided Republicans continue to dominate Congress.
China’s stock market crash is more complicated.
Beijing’s pledge in Paris included capping overall carbon emissions, lowering its carbon intensity by roughly 65% and increasing the share of renewables in its energy sector by 20%, all by the year 2030.
Ironically, China’s recent economic slowdown means both lower carbon emissions and lower carbon intensity. If the economy stabilizes, this unintentional decline in emissions could come to an end if no policies aimed at reducing emissions are implemented.
Surprisingly low oil prices have thrown a wrench in clean energy investment and development that China was championing in hopes of shedding its coal dependency and meeting its promise to increase its share of renewables.
The only option is to phase out all fossil fuel use.
The market shocks may momentarily shift the Chinese government’s focus away from climate policy towards a perceived need to stimulate economic growth.
With low oil prices jeopardizing many coal and oil companies, the government could seek to support carbon-intensive industries in the hope of stabilizing the economy. That could place long-term efforts to de-carbonize the Chinese market on hold.
At the same time, a collapse of the private sector could force regional governments to restructure their economies. Many provinces have already introduced regulations on manufacturers and power plants in response to air pollution clouding much of China.
In my view, the only option to prevent the Earth from warming to a destructive level — broadly agreed to be 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures — is to phase out all fossil fuel use as soon as possible.
To do this, the United States and China would need to lead the world in setting a price on carbon and removing subsidies on fossil fuels, paving the way for widespread use of already-efficient renewable energies.
The United States and China are still a long way from phasing out fossil fuels, largely due to political obstacles that hamper implementation of emissions-reducing policies. Human ingenuity is capable of surmounting these obstacles. We can only hope that it doesn’t take catastrophic climatic events to propel us into taking meaningful action.