Center for American Progress

Myth vs. Reality on International Climate Change Negotiations

Myth vs. Reality on International Climate Change Negotiations

Learn how to separate fact from fiction as the world prepares for the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon speaks during the opening of the World Climate Conference - 3 at the World Meteorological Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on September 3, 2009. (AP/Martial Trezzini)
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon speaks during the opening of the World Climate Conference - 3 at the World Meteorological Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on September 3, 2009. (AP/Martial Trezzini)

Myth #1: The United States should not have to act if China and India are not doing anything.

Reality: Both China and India are now moving forward with ambitious plans for emissions reductions and low-carbon development.

China’s fuel economy standard for passenger cars is equivalent to 36.7 miles per gallon, and China is reportedly considering raising this to 42.2 mpg. The U.S. standard remained at 27.5 mpg for 20 years until President Obama recently announced a new standard in May of 35.5 mpg by 2016.

China is also making steady progress toward reducing energy intensity—energy consumption per unit of GDP—by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2010. And China aims to generate 10 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2010, and 15 percent by 2020.

India recently announced that it will quantify greenhouse gas emissions and take actions to reduce emissions through deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency. India has announced the most ambitious solar energy goal in the world and is moving forward with a plan to radically improve home appliance efficiency.

The Bush administration signed on to the U.N. Bali Action Plan in December 2007, which is a commitment by developed countries to assist developing countries with technology and finance to transition to a low-carbon pathway in exchange for a commitment from those developing countries to make “measurable, reportable, and verifiable” emissions reductions. The United States and China signed an additional bilateral agreement this July that could help make this plan a reality. Such agreements will ensure that the major emerging economies will continue their efforts to reduce emissions.

Myth #2: China and India will not commit to an international agreement on climate change.

Reality: Both China and India have publically stated that they will sign a new climate agreement as long as it does not inhibit their economic growth.

Both China and India ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to bring developing countries into the fold as full partners in the global reduction of carbon pollution. Both countries are also part of other diplomatic processes that could help form the basis of an international agreement, such as the Major Economies Forum.

The MEF, which originated under the Bush administration, brings together a group of the 17 largest economies to develop concrete solutions on technology and finance to bring to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December. Both China and India have already explicitly acknowledged, through the MEF process, “the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees C.” The United States and China are also engaged in bilateral negotiations that are integral to achieving a successful outcome.

Indeed, the United States and China have already moved forward with promising agreements. The U.S. Department of Energy and China joined in a partnership in June to improve building efficiency and create sustainable communities that are powered with renewable sources. The two countries then in July signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to engage in policy dialogue on climate change, and to cooperate on capacity building, research, development, and deployment of low-carbon technology.

Myth #3: China, India, Brazil and other developing countries refuse to accept binding caps on greenhouse gas emissions.

Reality: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change does not require developing countries to accept binding targets because they have different needs than the developed world.

Nearly 50 percent of Indians—half a billion people—do not have access to electricity. Hundreds of millions of Chinese live below the poverty line. Such nations should have different obligations than the United States or Europe. But this does not mean that these countries won’t eventually accept binding emissions cuts.

Chinese government officials have already made explicit statements that China will peak its emissions growth at some future date. South Korea and Mexico have also indicated a willingness to consider future caps. And these countries have already agreed in principle as part of the Bali Action Plan to reduce their emissions in a measurable, reportable, and verifiable way.

Myth #4: Emissions reductions in developing countries cannot be accounted for or verified.

Reality: Measuring, reporting, and verifying emissions reductions is an issue for both developed and developing countries.

For instance, although it continues to be a work in progress, China has developed a fairly detailed range of measurement, reporting, and verification mechanisms for their major energy and environmental policies. China’s statistics laws have been tightened to improve data quality and enhance accountability.

Developing countries are eager to improve their capacity for measurement, reporting, and verification. It is in their interest to measure the effectiveness of such policies as this is the only framework under which developed countries will ever provide assistance for clean economic development.

Myth #5: Joining an international agreement will leave the United States at a competitive disadvantage and jobs will go overseas.

Reality: Passing domestic climate legislation and investing in a clean energy economy will make the United States a leader in the clean energy race, boosting job creation and the economy.

Clean-energy investments prompted by the American Clean Energy Security Act will generate around 1.7 million jobs. The American Clean Energy Security Act includes provisions to assist energy-intensive, trade-sensitive industries with competition from firms in nations without reduction plans. Steel, glass, cement, and other energy-intensive industries would receive pollution allowances that they can use or sell to keep them competitive with foreign firms. Companies in countries without emissions reductions programs would have to purchase allowances after 2020. A Pew Center on Global Climate Change study found that these provisions will ensure that industries would experience less than a 1 percent decline in overall production as a result of a cap on emissions.

An international agreement will catalyze public and private actors to capitalize on emerging clean-energy investment opportunities abroad. A recent report by the China Greentech Initiative found that China has enormous potential for a mass market in green technologies, reaching up to $1 trillion a year. U.S. companies are already hungry for investment opportunities in China, recognizing a growing desire among the Chinese to reduce environmental threats and be a leader in clean energy technology. Duke Energy signed an agreement in August with Huaneng, one of the biggest Chinese utilities, to cooperate on renewable energy and carbon capture and storage. And American company First Solar signed a deal with Chinese government officials in September to build the largest photovoltaic plant in the world—producing enough solar electricity to power 3 million Chinese homes.

Our economy will likely suffer if we do not move to capture these opportunities.

Myth #6: We must achieve a final international agreement on climate change at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, or international climate change negotiations will be a failure.

Reality: The meeting in Copenhagen is part of a process for structuring an international agreement, not the end of it. The same was true for the Kyoto Protocol. The Copenhagen meeting will be the 15th meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Success at Copenhagen would be the adoption of architecture for a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Accord that commits countries to greenhouse gas reductions. Final numbers can come later through an extension process, as was the case with the July 2001 interim meeting in Bonn, Germany between the sixth and seventh UNFCCC meetings. Multilateral and bilateral negotiations continue outside of the UNFCCC process and will likely result in cooperation between developing and developed countries on financial and technological measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Myth #7: The United States is doing little to curb emissions, falling out of step with other developed countries.

Reality: The present proposals for midterm emissions reductions in ACES in conjunction with complementary measures achieve strong midterm targets equal to those of developed countries.

The economy-wide cap proposed in ACES would reduce emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. This target falls short of the demands of the European Union and will not trigger the EU’s commitment to lower their emissions from 20 to 30 percent below 1990 levels if the United States makes a comparable effort.

Yet a recent study by the World Resources Institute, however, calculates that this legislation could achieve emission reductions of 23 percent below 1990 levels if all complementary measures are taken into account, such as international forestry projects, industrial performance standards, energy efficiency measures, and international offsets. If this analysis can be verified, it will satisfy the EU’s requirement for a comparable effort and trigger their increase in emissions reductions. CAP proposes measuring “carbon cap equivalents,” or taking a full accounting of what countries are prepared to do in terms of emissions reductions that are not completely expressed under an economy-wide cap.

Myth #8: The U.S. Congress must pass climate change legislation before international negotiations begin in December 2009 to achieve a successful outcome in Copenhagen.

Reality: The United States has already undertaken steps to reduce its greenhouse gas pollution and these efforts can demonstrate our commitment to reducing emissions at the UNFCCC meeting in December.

The Obama administration set the first national limits on greenhouse gases from motor vehicles, which will reduce pollution by 900 million tons for model years 2012-2016. And the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February made a $90 billion down payment on the transition to a clean energy economy, including $20 billion in tax incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Efforts at the state level, including renewable energy standards in 28 states and the District of Columbia, have jumpstarted the growth of clean-energy jobs and leadership in new technologies with minimal rises in electric rates. States recognize the benefits of investing in clean energy and energy efficiency.

The imminent endangerment finding decision, in which the Environmental Protection Agency will determine that “global warming is endangering the public’s health and welfare,” will enable the EPA to set pollution limits on major industrial sources such as power plants.

The House passed American Clean Energy Security Act reduces greenhouse gas pollution by 17 percent by 2020. It is now pending in the Senate, with debate expected this fall. There is strong public support for a clean energy bill like ACES. The majority of voters support ACES and say they would be less likely to vote for a senator who opposes the bill.

Myth #9: The European Union Emissions Trading System is a failure.

Reality: The EU Emissions Trading System, a cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide emissions, has a carbon market worth $56.6 billion annually and has reduced pollution by 50 to 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Too many emissions allowances were given away to polluting industries during the initial test phase, which led to windfall profits for polluters while prices spiked for consumers. But the program became successful following revisions in the second and third phases. The United States can learn from that experience in shaping its own trading system.

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Rebecca Lefton

Senior Policy Analyst

Andrew Light

Senior Fellow

Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow