The United States, China, Ohio and Climate Change

Nov 14, 2014

The United States, China and Ohio might seem like an unlikely grouping, but that’s how University of Dayton professor Bob Brecha is making sense of the climate change agreement made during the President’s visit to China this week.

Science now tells us that climate change is real. We are witnessing the effects around the world, from heat waves to extreme rain and snow. Although we’ve been working on international climate agreements for decades, very little has been accomplished.

So it’s a big step forward that President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping worked out this agreement. Over the past decade the US reduced its CO2 emissions by a little less than 10%. And it happened mainly because of slowed economic growth during and since the Recession. During that same time, China doubled its CO2 emissions as its economic growth exploded. China has surpassed the US as the world’s largest emitter. Now President Obama has pledged reduce emissions in our country to a level 26-28% below what they were in 2005. This goal, while ambitious in some ways, reflects a reality that renewable energy use in the US is growing rapidly, and that coal power is being supplanted both by renewables and natural gas. Also, many existing coal power plants are simply old and outdated. Things are shifting on their own.

For its part, China pledged to stop increasing its CO2 emissions by 2030 at the latest. This latitude for development reflects the reality that China still emits far less per person than the US, and China is a much poorer country. Together with Europe, which has already pledged its own much steeper cuts, nearly two-thirds of world carbon emissions are targeted for reduction. A global agreement with a large number of countries on board would be ideal, but seemingly unrealistic given political tensions around the world.

I can only speculate about what led to the agreement between China and the US now. From all reports, however, China is suffering greatly from the effects of air pollution, much of it coming from its reliance on coal for electricity. Think about photos of Chinese wearing facemasks in the thick dark air. China recognizes that they can both reduce damages to health and well-being while at the same time providing support for new, forward-looking industries. There is likely also a realization that climate change impacts will hit China hard in the future, if not already. President Obama has made clear that he believes action is necessary to prevent the coming effects of climate change, and that we cannot afford to wait another decade or more to act.

There is a local twist to this story as well. The State of Ohio was an early adopter of progressive renewable and clean energy standards. But more recently, the passage of State Bill 310 has placed those standards on hold, taking us a step backwards from what had been a leadership role in renewable and clean energy. First, we had built up a strong position in the renewable energy industry, taking advantage of a long history of manufacturing experience and capabilities. Second, even if fracking and horizontal drilling for natural gas and oil is enjoying a short-term boom, it will not last for more than a decade or two at most – that costs us time we could use to develop a long-term sustainable energy system. Finally, all fossil fuels result in CO2 emissions, whether fracked or not, so they don’t help us in the long run. What we really need in Ohio is the foresight that we saw in Beijing by President Obama and President Xi this week.

Bob Brecha is a professor of the renewable and clean energy program at the University of Dayton.