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Environmental and Natural Resources Law

Possible China emissions cap important for U.S.’ new CO2 rules

June 04, 2014

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China Emissions Cap To Push US Toward Strict Climate Regs

By Sean McLernon

Law360, New York (June 03, 2014, 6:49 PM ET) – China’s Tuesday pledge to limit total greenhouse gas emissions could have a major impact in the U.S., as regulatory action would provide federal officials cover to tackle domestic carbon pollution and commit to a global climate agreement despite economic disincentives, experts say.

The world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases is ready to move ahead with an absolute cap on carbon dioxide in China’s next five-year plan, according to comments reportedly made by Climate Change Advisory Committee Chairman He Jiankun at a conference Tuesday.

With Jiankun’s comments coming only hours after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a proposed rule slashing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent over the next 15 years, experts say Chinese regulation would also likely affect future U.S energy policy.

“If China does something domestically, it could have a very meaningful role in both the talking points regarding the newly proposed Clean Air Act Section 111(d) rules and the potential to actually get some kind of meaningful agreement through international negotiations,” Lewis & Clark law school professor Melissa Powers said.

The EPA’s proposal has been extremely unpopular among certain sectors of the energy industry, Republican lawmakers, and residents living in coal-producing areas like Kentucky and West Virginia. The Obama administration will have to deal with resistance throughout the rulemaking process, but a Chinese carbon dioxide cap would allow government officials to point to China as an example of another major emitter stepping up as part of the global climate change battle.

“It makes the rule more politically palatable,” Powers said. “EPA can say that it’s not acting alone. Europe has been doing it for a long time and now China is stepping up. Each country bears its own responsibility, and we are acting in tandem.”

At a global level, a lot of the bigger emitters have said they are not going to act if others don’t go first. Powers said it’s been like “a game of chicken on the international stage.” Many of the nearly 200 nations from around the world participating in United Nations international climate negotiations remain far apart on the terms of a global agreement and are focused on laying the groundwork for the pivotal 2015 conference in Paris.

With both the U.S. and China taking action, however, that could start to change. According toReed Smith LLP counsel Jennifer A. Smokelin, who was an official delegate of the U.S. energy industry during the 2009 global climate talks in Copenhagen, a move by China to regulate carbon dioxide emissions would eliminate an excuse for the U.S. not to work hard on an international deal.

“The U.S. has often said that certain developing nations have to make moves to reduce their emissions before they will reduce emissions, using that as the basis for failing to make significant international commitments,” Smokelin said. “China making a move takes away one of the U.S. reasons for not moving.”

Although regulations from China certainly don’t compel the U.S. to press ahead with stringent regulations, Smokelin said they could reduce some of the economic pressures that come with many environmental rules.

“The name of the game is a level economic playing field in the global market of goods,” Smokelin said. “To the extent that a competitor nation like China takes significant and enforceable steps with regard to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. has a buffer to increase costs and still compete in the global market.”

If China and the U.S. start moving at the same time instead of staring each other down, Powers said there could be progress towards an international deal.

“It could break open a logjam for other participants on the global stage,” Powers said. “Even if we have countries moving parallel with each other, that parallel motion is meaningful in terms of emissions reductions. It gets some momentum going.”

Jiankun’s comments also reveal that China could be receiving a message from the world as well, according to Sidley Austin LLP partner and former EPA general counsel Roger R. Martella Jr.

“What this tells us is the pressure to address greenhouse gas emissions is seeping into China as much as it is any country with a significant industrial economy,” Martella said.

The details of any potential Chinese regulations are currently unclear, and Center For American Progress senior policy analyst Melanie Hart warned that they may be more nuanced than Jiankun’s reported comments suggest.

China is using economic models to estimate when its carbon dioxide emissions would peak, and experts have suggested that it could come in three stages, Hart said. Areas along the eastern seaboard that are more developed could peak around 2017, but other areas might not get there until 2025 or 2030, according to Hart.

Carbon emissions regulation could start, then, with some of those more developed areas, which the next five-year plan including only part of the country or specific industries, Hart said. But even if China moves at a more deliberate pace, its actions could help push the world closer to a global climate agreement.

“China and the U.S. are very different,” Hart said. “If the U.S. can follow one path and nail it, and China can follow another path and nail it, it sends a message to the rest of the world: No matter what stage you are in, there are ways to get it done.”

–Editing by Elizabeth Bowen and Philip Shea.

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