by Tom Harris, Executive Director, ICSC, ©2020
In his climate change plan Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden says that the United States will “re-enter the Paris Agreement on day one of the Biden Administration.” The former vice-president reassures readers in his “Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice” that he will “not allow other nations, including China, to game the system by becoming destination economies for polluters…”
Biden is apparently unaware that the Paris Agreement is one of the primary tools with which China is gaming the system. This is because the treaty gives huge benefits to China, still considered a developing country under UN rules, that do not apply to us. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement for exactly that reason.
Here’s what Joe seems to not know about Paris.
Under the 2015 agreement, the U.S. committed to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (about 81% of which is carbon dioxide (CO2)) by between 26% and 28% below its 2005 levels by 2025. China committed to stop increasing CO2 emissions by 2030.
This asymmetry makes no sense, of course. Allowing China, which now emits about twice as much as America, to increase emissions over this period, while restricting the U.S., would result in even more industries moving to China. Total global CO2 emissions would then likely rise even faster.
But that problem pales in comparison with the fact that, unknown to most observers, China and other developing nations need not ever curtail emissions under Paris. Its all in the fine print.
All UN climate change agreements, including Paris, are based on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Paris treaty says,
“The Parties to this Agreement,… In pursuit of the objective of the Convention [UNFCCC], and being guided by its principles…”
And UNFCCC Article 4 makes it clear that,
“The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.”
In other words, under the Paris Agreement and other treaties based on the UNFCCC, any commitments developing nations make to reduce their GHG emissions are conditioned on developed countries giving them enough money and technology. Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt confirmed this in a Fox News interview on October 17, 2017, saying, “India conditioned all of the responsibilities on receiving $2.5 trillion of aid.”
But even if developed countries give developing countries everything promised, under the UNFCCC developing countries may apparently still ignore their commitments to restrict emissions if such actions would interfere with their “first and overriding priorities” [of] “economic and social development and poverty eradication.”
We, of course, are expected to keep our emission reduction commitments no matter how it damages our economy.
UN bureaucrats have not hidden this inequality. They repeatedly explain “development and poverty eradication” are the most important issues for developing countries. Climate change clearly takes a back seat.
Restricting CO2 emissions in developing nations would almost certainly involve significantly reducing the use of coal, the source of well over half of China’s electricity, for example. As coal is the cheapest source of power in most of the world, restricting CO2 emissions by reducing coal use would obviously interfere with development priorities. So, no matter what emission reductions they promise, China and many other developing countries are unlikely to follow their commitments, citing UNFCCC Article 4 as their excuse.
This is unlikely to change even as developing countries become more prosperous. Chinese negotiator Su Wei stated at the Peru UN climate conference in 2014 that the purpose of the Paris Agreement is to “reinforce and enhance” the UNFCCC, not rewrite it.
So, Biden has to decide—will he really work to prevent China from gaming the system or will he cave in to a treaty that institutionalizes it? He can’t have it both ways.
Tom Harris is Executive Director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.