Andrew Coyne: Frisky lame duck Obama has backed Harper into a bit of a corner on climate change
Andrew Coyne | November 14, 2014 8:12 PM ET
CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty ImagesU.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) town hall meeting at Yangon University’s Diamond Jubilee Hall in Yangon on November 14, 2014.
For a lame duck, Barack Obama is looking distinctly frisky. In the days since his Democratic Party took a pasting in the midterm elections, the U.S. president has been moving quickly across a number of contentious policy fronts: immigration, “Net neutrality” and now greenhouse gases. It’s almost as if he feels liberated, as if he has nothing left to lose. As, in fact, he has.
The climate change agreement just concluded with China is both less and more significant than it appears. Less, because it mostly commits the two countries to doing what they were going to do anyway. China’s carbon dioxide emissions were already on track to peak around 2030, the very year China has agreed its emissions should cease to grow. Indeed, China has every reason to move away from carbon-based energy sources without an agreement — for the sake of its own suffering citizens, never mind the planet. Plans are already well advanced for a national emissions-trading market, aimed at curbing the particulates that have made the air in its cities unbreathable. If it also reduces CO2 emissions, so much the better.
The U.S., for its part, while only formally committed until now (by the 2009 Copenhagen Accord) to reducing its emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, has already put in motion the sorts of policy changes that would drive it toward the new, lower target of a 26-to-28% reduction by 2025. That’s what Mr. Obama’s Climate Action Plan, announced last year, was all about. True, much of it has yet to be fully implemented, but its regulatory-heavy measures were intended to be largely executable without Congress’s agreement. Once in place, he is calculating, future administrations will be loath to reverse them.
The agreement, what is more, is wholly non-binding, both in language and as a matter of practical reality. China has a history of abrogating its international commitments, not least on this file, while the Obama administration, whatever its own intentions, could not hope to get a binding treaty past Congress. The two countries, in short, have agreed to act more or less as they please, while pretending to be beholden to each other.
How, then, could it also be more significant than it appears? Because this isn’t only an agreement about the two signatories, or their specific commitments. Its importance is as much symbolic. Maybe China has only agreed to do what it was going to do anyway, in its own interests, but it is of some note that it has put its signature to it, if only because it makes it harder for U.S. opponents of action on climate change to object that it is unfair or futile because “China is not doing anything.”
Coupled with the European Union’s recently renewed undertaking, this means the world’s three largest emitters, together responsible for 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions, have all committed themselves to pressing forward. That’s important, as the world prepares for talks on a new climate change accord at next year’s summit in Paris.
The most immediate impact may be on Canada. The officially stated policy of the government of Canada, recall, is to match whatever the U.S. does. In fact we have not done even that. Not only are we nowhere near to achieving the promised 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, we are not on any realistic track to get there. The policies we have enacted to that end — a mix of subsidies and regulations, of a kind that went out of favour among serious environmentalists a generation ago — are among the costliest, most cumbersome and ineffective ways of reducing emissions that could be devised. And we haven’t even applied them yet to the single largest source of emissions, the oil and gas sector.
That’s generally laid at the feet of the Conservative government, which went so far as to pull Canada out of the first global climate change agreement, the Kyoto Accord. But while the Tories have manifestly failed to live up to even the watered-down commitments made at Copenhagen, the opposition parties have yet to offer much of substance in its place. The NDP’s preferred carbon-trading scheme would apply only to heavy industry, while the Liberals, having run and lost on a more comprehensive carbon tax, now stick to vague generalities about “putting a price on carbon.”