Five Reasons Why Professor Robert Stavins is (Cautiously) Optimistic About International Climate Change Policy

December 2, 2013

Energy policy experts, elected and appointed officials, and scholars recently convened for the 19th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP-19) in Warsaw, Poland with the objective of moving forward toward an international climate change agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.  Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government and director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, was one of those in attendance, and he returned with a renewed sense of hope.  Below, he provides five reasons why he is optimistic about the future of climate change policy.

"My cautious optimism is based upon a singular reality – the growing convergence of interests between the two most important countries in the world when it comes to climate change and international policy to address it, namely, China and the United States," says Stavins.

1) The annual carbon dioxide (CO2) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the United States and China have already converged. Whereas U.S. CO2 emissions in 1990 were almost five times greater than Chinese emissions, by 2006 China had overtaken the United States. We are the world’s two largest emitters.

2) Cumulative emissions are particularly important, because they are what cause climate change. Any discussion of distributional equity in the climate realm inevitably turns to considerations of historic responsibility. Looking at the period 1850-2010, the United States led the pack, accounting for nearly 19 percent of cumulative global emissions of GHGs, with the European Union in second place with 17 percent, and China third, accounting for about 12 percent of global cumulative emissions. But that is changing rapidly, because of the fact that emissions are flat to declining throughout the industrialized world, but increasingly rapidly in the large emerging economies, in particular, China. Depending upon the relative rates of economic growth of China and the United States, as well as many other factors, China may top all countries in cumulative emissions within 10 to 20 years from now.

3) China and the United States both have historically high reliance on coal for generating electricity. At a time at which U.S. dependence on coal is decreasing (due to increased supplies of unconventional natural gas and hence lower gas prices ), China continues to rely on coal, but is very concerned about this, partly because of localized health impacts of particulates and other pollutants. Importantly, both countries have very large shale gas reserves. U.S. output (and use for electricity generation) has been increasing rapidly, bringing down CO2 emissions, whereas Chinese exploitation and output has been constrained by available infrastructure (i.e., lack of pipelines, but that will change).

4) In China and the U.S. countries, sub-national climate policies – cap-and-trade systems – are moving forward. In the case of the China, seven pilot CO2 cap-and-trade regimes at the local level are under development, while in the United States, California’s ambitious AB-32 cap-and-trade system continues to make progress.

       

5) Finally, there is the reality of global geopolitics.  If the twentieth century was the American Century, then many observers, including leaders in China, anticipate (or hope) that the twenty-first century will be the Chinese Century.  And, as I was quoted by David Jolly in the New York Times as saying, “If it’s your century, you don’t obstruct, you lead.”

There was no fundamental setback in Warsaw to the stream of work that needs to be accomplished in Lima, Peru, in 2014, in preparation for an agreement to be reached in Paris, in 2015, under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. This, combined with the reality of increasing convergence of Chinese and U.S. perspectives and interests, leaves me cautiously optimistic (or perhaps, just hopeful) about the path ahead.

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Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government

Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government

Photo Credit: Harvard Gazette

"My cautious optimism is based upon a singular reality – the growing convergence of interests between the two most important countries in the world when it comes to climate change and international policy to address it, namely, China and the United States."