the national interest

Whether Up Is Down or Down Is Up , There’s Never a Need to Reduce Emissions at The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page

File photo of a worker unloading coal at a storage site along a railway station in Shenyang
Burn it all. We’ll figure out the reasons later. Photo: Sheng Li/Corbis

For a few years now, President Obama has had this crazy idea in his head that he could work together with China to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But The Wall Street Journal editorial page understood all along that this preposterous scheme could never work. “Mr. Obama’s logic seems to be that the U.S. should first set a moral example by imposing costs that reduce our prosperity,” mocked a Journal editorial a year and a half ago. “This will then inspire China (8.7 billion tons), which produces and consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined, to do the same to its 300 million people who still live on pennies a day. Good luck persuading Xi Jinping.” There’s no point in Obama reducing American emissions, because China isn’t ever going to reduce its own emissions, no matter what.

A few months after that dismissive editorial, China and the U.S. signed a bilateral agreement to reduce their emissions. Obama persuaded Xi Jinping! No, no, the Journal explained in a November editorial last year. China was just making vague promises about the future that it would never implement:

We and many others have been skeptical of a U.S.-China carbon pact, though that was because we assumed the White House and green lobby would demand terms that imposed at least some discipline on Chinese behavior. We discounted the possibility that Mr. Obama preferred the illusion of progress, and that his green allies could be rolled as cheaply as the terms of Tuesday’s accord.

Under the nonbinding, no-detail agreement, Supreme Leader Xi Jinping promises “to intend to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030,” and then maybe after that to decline. This is another way of describing the status quo.

Since then, evidence has continued to pile up that China is following a pretty rigorous program of transitioning to green energy. It is investing massively in renewable energy sources, its coal use appears to have peaked, and it has announced a nationwide cap-and-trade policy. Today’s Journal editorial explains that all these changes are evidence that China snookered Obama:

Migration to cities is slowing after the urban population surged to 55% of the total last year from 20% in 1980. That means less housing construction, which is resource-intensive.

All of this lowers demand for energy; electricity consumption grew by only 0.7% in the first 10 months of this year. The government is now forcing surplus steel mills and other heavy industry plants to close. 

China also wants to reduce its coal consumption for domestic political reasons. 

China’s coal power plants are running at an average of 50% of capacity. A byproduct of this shift will be lower carbon emissions. ….

In other words, President Xi’s concession last year was a clever way to extract diplomatic benefits from the U.S. without cost. If the Paris talks lead to a new protocol, the U.S. will give aid to developing countries to pay for little or no change while Americans accept a lower standard of living to meet Mr. Obama’s tough targets. China has played the U.S. President like a Stradivarius.

Old line: The U.S. shouldn’t reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions because Chinese emissions will keep rising anyway. New line: The U.S. shouldn’t reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions because China would cap its own emissions regardless of what we do. Journal editorial readers must be amazed to see the possibility of Chinese emissions controls go from 0 percent to 100 percent, without pausing in between at a point where American reciprocity might have even the slightest impact.

Never a Need to Reduce Emissions at WSJ