The United States and China announced a historic agreement to cut their emissions yesterday. This might be the best news in international climate politics since Al Gore was vice president. And it's still far from enough to solve the problem of global warming.
The United States is the biggest historical emitter of carbon dioxide emissions, while China is the current number one greenhouse gas producer. They're the two biggest economies in the world, and neither has wanted to make any commitments on climate change without the other making one first. That stalemate has broken.
So, something good happened! In particular, China's commitment to building 800-1000 gigawatts of nuclear and renewable energy plants is astounding. That's almost an entire US electricity grid of low-carbon energy. If that doesn't spur investment in green technology, I'm not sure what will.
Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the American side of the agreement in an op-ed in the New York Times. Most targets in US climate policy are placed against the baseline of 2005, when the US was near its emissions peak. In keeping with that tradition, Kerry said his country would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent relative to 2005 levels. And the US would do that by 2025, or roughly in the next 10 years.
That's a slightly more ambitious goal than the one President Obama announced in 2009. "Our target builds on the ambitious goal President Obama set in 2009 to cut emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020," Kerry wrote. "We are on track to meet that goal, while creating jobs and growing the economy, with the help of a burgeoning clean energy sector."
The Obama administration has not actually been able to take major action on climate change. Democrats couldn't get a climate bill past a Senate filibuster in 2010—despite support from many big corporations—and so Obama's team has been forced to find other ways to limit emissions, including drafting rules earlier this year to cut the carbon dioxide that power plants put out.
Climate change has become one of the most divisive issues in American politics—only 25 percent of Republicans view global warming as a threat to the United States, according to a recent Pew survey. And of course, both the House and Senate will be in Republican hands soon. Can the US actually deliver on its side of the bargain through multiple presidential elections and administrations?
Let's take a closer look at the US emissions data going back to 2000. Here are the Energy Information Administration's tabulations. These numbers take into account emissions from burning fuel in cars and buildings and power plants.
I've left some room to do future projections on the x-axis. The y-axis is in million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which you could informally call shit-tons, as it is nearly impossible to imagine the scale that we're talking about here. Burning a gallon of gasoline releases about 20 pounds of CO2 into the air. One million metric tons is 2,204,622,620 pounds.
If you look at these numbers, you'll notice there was a decided drop during the Bush administration because … The entire economy collapsed. People and businesses stopped using as much energy because they didn't want to spend the money. That's meant that the overall trend in the 21st century has been towards less carbon dioxide pollution.
Still, using the data from 2000-2013, the United States would not be on track to hit the 2009 goal laid out by the Obama Administration, even with the aforementioned economic implosion. The more ambitious target laid out in the new agreement would seem out of reach, too.
But, perhaps if we just look at the Obama Administration's tenure, we would see the impact of their policies. And indeed, using 2009-2013 data, it looks like the US could get close to hitting Obama's original target, if things stayed on track over the coming years.
Let's apply a little more scrutiny, though. By the time Obama took office in 2009, emissions had fallen to their lowest levels since 1995. They've crept up and down since then.
In 2009, the US produced 5,416 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Last year, the US produced nearly the same amount: 5,396 million metric tons. And emissions in the first half of 2014 are higher than emissions were in the first half of 2013. So it could be that in 2014, the sixth year of the Obama administration, CO2 emissions will be higher than when he took office.
That's not the Administration's fault—Republican obstructionism on climate change policy should take most of whatever blame there is to spread around. But it does make me wonder whether the world will take this latest US commitment seriously.
Eventually, if climate scientists are right about the dangers of global warming, we have to produce radically less carbon dioxide. Not 15 or 20 percent less, but … 80 percent, 90 percent, or more. And nothing in recent history or the new accord even hints at that level of reduction. It's like needing to lose 50 pounds and committing to eating a handful fewer French fries every time you go to McDonald's. If this is, in Secretary Kerry's words, "on track," what would it look if things weren't going so well?