Another CleanTechnica article rightly tells us how great the China-US climate agreement is. In terms of total emissions from 1850 to present, the US is the worst offender. In terms of current emissions, China takes the #1 spot (the US is #3). For these top two emitters to commit to each other to clean up is a welcome development. Nothing in my article should take away from the message that the agreement itself is awesome. If both countries can keep the agreement, good things will happen.
But, according to some readers, I am CleanTechnica’s chief wet blanket. It therefore falls on me to detail reasons to be skeptical of the agreement, and not just because China has a bad history when it comes to environmental action and international agreements. The United States has serious problems, too.
Problems On The US End
To be 100% fair, I’ll talk about my home country’s problems first. Not only do I want to avoid accusations of favoring the States, but I also just hate it when people pull the “but America…” card whenever any other country is criticized. The simple fact is that two wrongs don’t make a right. The climate emergency is too important and needs addressed too badly to play stupid whatabout games.
I really only need two words to show why the United States can’t be trusted to keep its climate agreements: Donald Trump.
We’ve written extensively about Trump’s anti-climate actions when he was in office. Not only did he back out of the Paris agreement, but he also wasn’t afraid to betray principles conservatives claim to hold dear (free markets, states’ rights, etc.) if it would give oil companies a leg up. He censored the websites of federal agencies, despite his constant whining about censorship on social media. He tried to give away federal lands and waters, or reduce their protections. He kept soot pollution limits high. He even tried to increase drilling in the Alaskan wilderness.
I could go on all day about Trump, but the real point in bringing up a former president is that he shows how easily the US government can back out of a climate deal and generally do the exact opposite.
Worse, it isn’t over yet. Recent elections show us that Republicans are stronger than ever going into the midterms, and barring something that hurts their public image, they’ve got pretty good chances in 2024 and 2028. If they get in power, expect this deal to go in the trash bin, or for it to just be ignored if it can’t be backed out of.
So, no. The United States can’t be trusted at this time to keep this deal. Serious changes in the voter base would have to happen for that to occur.
Problems On The Chinese End
If you’re a member of the “50 cent army (五毛黨)“, you’re here to bash me, and you skipped to this part to find things to take issue with, be sure to skip back to the last section before you embarrass yourself. Yes, the United States has problems, and none of those problems mean China’s misdeeds are somehow OK. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and I’m not afraid to say that my country has done wrong and probably will in the future.
The sad truth is that neither country is very likely to keep this agreement. China doesn’t have to worry about pesky voters throwing out China’s “man of determination and action,” but there are definitely commitment problems with Chinese characteristics.
First off, Xi’s China has shown that it won’t hesitate to violate a treaty if it gets in the way of the country doing something it wants to do, much the same as Trump and the Republicans. The most glaring example of this is the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In that treaty, Beijing committed to letting Hong Kong have a western-style system of government with representative government, open and fair elections, independent courts, and human rights protections until 2047 (50 years after the Hong Kong handoff).
In 2014, Chinese officials said that they feel the treaty has no legal force. The next year, people selling books Beijing didn’t like started disappearing. In 2020 and 2021, legal changes pushed by Beijing stripped voters of power to affect legislative outcomes and created a “national security law” that makes just about any political organizing Beijing doesn’t like a crime. People violating this new “law” can be extradited elsewhere in China to bypass Hong Kong’s courts and law enforcement, and Beijing’s officials in Hong Kong have basically no limits on their power to prosecute and persecute.
When it comes to climate, China has a poor history there as well. The Montreal Protocol, a 1987 treaty that banned certain ozone-depleting aerosols, was initially very successful at not only stopping damage to the ozone layer, but also at allowing it to heal. We’ve come back from the brink of ozone depletion, and we’re no longer worried about horrific UV rays burning and blinding people in South America, Tibet, and the Arctic. But scientists started to worry again as they noticed big increases in ozone-depleting emissions come out of China. Only after an international outcry, Beijing cracked down on the pollutants that they had committed to stop.
This happened in 2019.
More recently, there has been a lot of concern about China’s increased use of coal. Some scientists estimate that the recent increases in mining and burning the stuff would increase human CO2 emissions by a full percentage point when we’re trying to bring that down.
The Problem: Strongmen
There’s something Xi Jinping and Donald Trump both have in common: They’re the “strong leader” desperate people clamor for. When things are going wrong, it’s tempting to support the strong guy who can fix everything, and every time people reach for that button, things don’t go so well. Backing out of the sacrifices needed to fix climate problems is a particularly low-hanging fruit that strongmen like Trump and Xi can reach for to show people that they’re fighting for the economic well-being of a population that’s having problems.
Trump could very well come back to power, and Xi is in the process of securing an unusual third term as China’s leader. People who care about climate on both sides of the Pacific need to do what they can to encourage their leaders to do the right thing here. This agreement means we need to fight harder and not become complacent.