Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

U.S. And China Try To Change The Climate Change Conversation

Posted by Jon Elliott on Wed, Nov 26, 2014 November 12, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a bilateral agreement to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since these countries are the two biggest economies and largest emitters of GHGs – and are in a period when they seem to disagree about almost everything – this agreement has substantial symbolic value. But will it have much practical value?

What’s in the Agreement?

The agreement is being presented as clear and simple:

  • The United States announced that by 2025 it will reduce GHG emissions to 26-28 % below 2005 levels, en route to achieving “economy-wide reductions on the order of 80 per cent by 2050”
  • China announced it will peak its total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2030, and will try to peak sooner, by a range of policies including far greater roles for renewable energies and big improvements in energy efficiency

Initial reactions are predicable. Most proponents of global climate change initiatives are very supportive – including the United Nations’ global Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which has expressed confidence that this bilateral agreement will encourage significant progress on the ongoing efforts to replace the Kyoto Protocol with a new international system for GHG reductions.

Every Bit Helps, But How Much Can This Help?

GHG managers have adopted the principles that reductions should be “additional” (i.e., to what would occur absent a proposed activity) and “verifiable.” If we apply these principles to this week’s agreement, it’s not clear when we’ll know if the agreement is working.

Readers should notice that the U.S. is committing to take more actions sooner But readers should also have noted that President Obama’s Democratic Party just loss control of the U.S. Senate to the Republicans in last week’s election, and that the Republicans made gains throughout much of the country by opposing the President’s policies, including those designed to reduce climate change and other environmental impacts. Unless near-term agreements are reached among these domestic rivals, it’s not clear how the U.S. can be expected to begin to make progress to achieve substantial GHG emissions reductions in the next decade.

In contrast, China’s undertaking is longer term–15 years to stop increasing GHG emissions. China has been pushing renewables and energy efficiency hard for a number of years now, and it’s not clear if or how this agreement might accelerate those trends in the short term.

The first test of the agreement’s actual effects will be at the UNFCCC-sponsored meetings in Lima in December. If national representatives choose to take inspiration from the latest U.S.-China initiative, then the expressions of optimism will be self-fulfilling.

What Can the Rest of Us Do?

While waiting to see if this latest international agreement produces strategic changes, the rest of us can continue to work on the strategic and tactical opportunities within our own activities. I’ve written about elements of such efforts effort, including:

  • GHG-emitting activities, divided into “Scopes” 1 through 3, using approaches developed by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative Read more

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements that large-volume facilities and fossil fuel suppliers calculate and report their GHG emissions Read more

  • Climate Change Adaptation Planning Read more
Coming soon, my next e-book here on STP’s website will take a more detailed and hands-on look at organizational activities that produce GHGs–industrial processes, fuel combustion, heating and cooling, etc.

Where Can I Go For More Information?

Specialty Technical Publishers (STP) provides a variety of single-law and multi-law services, intended to facilitate clients’ understanding of and compliance with requirements. These include:

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About the Author Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 16 existing products, including Environmental Compliance: A Simplified National Guide and The Complete Guide to Environmental Law.

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

photo credit: Cory M. Grenier via photopin cc

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