Monday, September 28, 2009

US and China's Pledges to Fight Climate Change: Progress or Hot Air?

Environmentalists were happy last week to see China's President Hu Jintao commit his country towards fighting the greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for global climate change. In his UN address, Hu pledged that China would get 15% of their power from non-fossil fuel sources by the end of the next decade and would plant an area of China roughly the size of California in forests to help offset emissions from other sources. Not to be left out, President Obama used his UN speech, in part, to re-commit the United States also to fighting climate change.

Having the two countries responsible for almost half the world's greenhouse gas emissions talk about taking the threat of climate change seriously is a step in the right direction in the view of many environmentalists. But I'd argue that there's actually less here than meets the eye.

This December, nations from around the world will gather in Copenhagen to try to agree to a new global climate change agreement to replace the expiring (and many would argue ineffective) Kyoto Protocols. And that's the problem with the statements of Presidents Hu and Obama - in addition to promising grand, though ultimately vague, goals for projects to fight climate change, each president proposed domestic solutions to a global problem - both China and the United States would set their own goals and judge themselves on how well they meet them.

The problem is that global climate change is a global problem (see the world 'global' is even there in the title). Logically a global problem needs a global solution. But what Hu and Obama are saying is basically: here's our idea on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions within our countries, now wait and we'll tell you how well we do at reaching it. Heading into Copenhagen, diplomats from industrialized nations are pushing for a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that global temperatures only rise to 2 degrees C (or 3.6 degrees F) over what they historically were before the world began to industrialize. But without the US and China, and our nearly 50% of the world's emissions, on board it's hard to imagine how that goal could ever be met. And Obama and Hu are already signaling that they'll excuse their respective countries from any kind of global standards on capping and reducing emissions.

Copenhagen is seen as really the last chance to seriously fight global climate change in the coming century. Even the 2C goal is seen by some of those most affected as a weak target. Lost in the shuffle of the UN General Assembly last week was a meeting of the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS, a group of 42 island nations, many of them very low-lying island nations; some, like the Maldives fear they could disappear entirely if ocean levels continue to rise due to the melting of the polar ice caps. AOSIS is pushing for a global warming goal of only 1.5 degrees C, though they admit even limiting global warming to that small amount might be too much for the future survival of their island homes.
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