Why Obama's Climate-Change Plan Is Hopeless Without China

Unless the U.S. can convince the world's top source of greenhouse gasses to cut back, our own attempts to rein in carbon emissions won't mean much.
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President Obama has designed a plan to combat climate change without the help of Congress, because Congress is a place where even Democrats do things like cut TV ads in which they fire rifles at cap-and-trade legislation. Unfortunately, while the administration may be able to work around Capitol Hill on this issue, the same cannot be said of China. 

The painful truth is that without cooperation from the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter, any effort the United States makes to slow global warming likely won't amount to much. China, where rapid economic growth has been powered with copious amounts of coal, accounted for more than a quarter worldwide emissions in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The United States was responsible for just under 17 percent. 

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And, while U.S. emissions have fallen since 2005, China's are still increasing right along with the output of its factories. The Rhodium Group estimates they were up by roughly 3.4 percent last year.Rhodium_China_US.jpg

This is why a sizable chunk of Obama's climate plan is dedicated to International engagement. Convincing China, as well as fast-growing developing economies like India, to limit their emissions is as crucial to combating global warming at this point as convincing the developed world to wean itself off of oil and coal. The next big chance to do so will likely be the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris. 

"What we need is an agreement that's ambitious -- because that's what the scale of the challenge demands," Obama said of the conference during his speech today. Of course, he added, the agreement also needs to be "flexible -- because different nations have different needs."

And how precisely China sees its needs is a bit murky. On the one hand, the country has long argued that, out of economic fairness, developing countries should be given more leeway on greenhouse gasses than the rich nations of Europe and North America. On the other, its cities are also choking on coal pollution. Beijing has already committed to cutting the carbon intensity of China's economy -- the amount of CO2 emitted per dollar of output -- 17 percent by 2020, and it has launched an experimental, cap-and-trade pilot program in the industrial hub of Shenzhen. Stories in the The Financial Times and The Independent suggested the government was ready to commit to an nationwide cap on carbon by 2016. But its top climate negotiator, Su Wei, quickly wrote off the reports. And Wei has previously said that China's emissions will continue rising until its per capita gross domestic product is five times larger than it is today. 

The world needs China to cut back sooner -- which brings us back to Obama's plan for the United States. Past efforts to broker an International deal on climate change have been derailed by a crippling lack of trust between nations, and in particular America's unwillingness to rein in its own energy excesses. Unless we can begin making serious progress domestically, there's not much reason to think we can convince the government in Beijing to help us make progress globally.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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