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With U.S.-China climate deal, Canada's isolation deepens

Tuesday’s U.S.-China climate deal has been hailed widely as an “historic deal” that dramatically changes the dynamics of international climate politics as countries search for a new global agreement by the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Climate Convention in Paris in 2015.

Clearly it is a welcome development in a number of senses: it involves a very public commitment from the world’s largest emitters that will be hard to renege on; it puts pressure on other countries that have not already made pledges (many already have) to reduce emissions, or to up the ambition of their pledges in some cases; and it can act to create further trust amongst countries that the major emitters are negotiating in good faith building momentum towards Paris.

But while the deal is important  and as I return to later, a stark reminder of Canada’s continued isolation and intransigence on the climate file  the optimism must be tempered for a number of reasons.

First, there is a striking parallel here to the run-up to the Copenhagen COP in 2009  and we all know where that ended up. Before that Conference too, the U.S. and China played high-level shuttle diplomacy, with Hillary Clinton travelling to Beijing and senior Chinese officials visiting Washington. They carefully choreographed pledges to reduce emissions with the same sort of aim as they have just done again, managing the competing demands of trying to create momentum for a deal in Copenhagen with the domestic pressures in each respective country.

While it was not a foregone conclusion, the historical parallel is a sobering reminder that such bilateral deals are no guarantee of success.

Second, from a climate change point of view the pledges are still inadequate. The U.S. pledge of 26-28% cuts by 2025 entails a modest acceleration of the rate of reductions from those they’ve already committed to up to 2020, but represent nothing like the systematic plan for the decarbonisation of the U.S. economy that the challenge requires and that is in place in some countries already, mostly countries in the European Union like the United Kingdom and Germany.

The Chinese pledge is in some ways more radical, since it proposes for the first time a peaking of emissions for the rapidly growing Chinese economy (still far lower than the U.S. in terms of per capita emissions). But the level at which emissions might peak, a rather crucial question in terms of global emissions, remains unspecified. 

Taking into account what is likely to happen in the Chinese economy itself, the target of 20% for electricity generation from non-fossil sources is far from ambitious, since China is already at 15% and investment in solar and wind is growing extremely rapidly there as elsewhere. In other words, China is likely to reach the 20% target without any additional policy effort.

Both countries are way behind the level of ambition of EU countries, which recently committed themselves to 40% cuts over 1990 levels by 2030 (a commitment which was itself criticised by many for being weaker than it could have been).

Third, on the American side, there is also a very significant credibility gap in Obama’s commitment. The upshot of the recent mid-term elections is that commitment in the international arena will face stiff opposition at home. The Obama administration is likely to have made the judgment that it will seek to use international commitments to play domestic political games, but the track record of such strategies is not good. In the negotiations that produced the Kyoto Protocol, the Clinton administration tried similar strategies, which failed to convince the Senate then to relax its position such that Kyoto might have been ratifiable in the U.S.

All the early signs are that the new composition Senate is going to make implementation of the EPA regulations on power generation yet more difficult, while re-opening debate on Keystone XL and other projects that embed further a high carbon future.

Finally, for those of us in Canada the deal has complicated implications. To the extent it demonstrates (despite the qualifications above) that the world’s two largest emitters have created a solid deal to limit their emissions – both significantly more ambitious than current Canadian commitments which themselves are unlikely to be met – it makes the international isolation of Canada even more obvious.

Canada is already seen as having Russia, Saudi Arabia and other similar states as its principal allies on climate change – any attempt to present itself as a more constructive country on this issue will be seen as the farce it is, unless Canadian policy and practice on climate change has a significant and rapid overhaul.

Are we up for the challenge?  Unlikely unless we have a radical change in strategic direction.

Matthew Paterson is a Broadbent policy fellow and professor with the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at the University of Ottawa. His work focuses on the intersection of global political economy and global environmental politics. 

Photo: Martin Cathrae. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.