Climate Change and the Big Four: India, China, the European Union, and the United States

When the Obama administration released its plans for using the EPA to regulate carbon emissions, it was not just big domestic news. It was also critical to global diplomacy. The world’s largest and third largest greenhouse gas emitters – China and India – have been watching that announcement carefully. How much they commit themselves to cutting emissions will depend critically on how far the United States and the EU go in implementing their carbon reduction plans.

Indeed, in the last two decades, China and India have regularly pledged greater cooperation with the United States and Europe on finding reliable, affordable, and sustainable sources of energy. One could predict that their regular summits with industrial powers would touch on energy cooperation. China and India, along with their U.S. and European counterparts, have participated enthusiastically in a series of clean energy ministerial meetings.

These efforts have not been entirely wasted, but American and European energy relations with both emerging giants remain unsettled at best and troubled at worst. China and India have watched as the developed world – still largely responsible for the manmade greenhouse gas emissions that have contributed to global warming – only slowly began to limit its carbon footprint. The latest pledge – cutting power-plant emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 – builds on previous Obama administration pledges, such as nearly doubling auto fuel economy standards by 2030.

The Big Four, World Energy Demand, and Cooperation

What the “Big Four” do on energy is massively important. Taken together, the United States, European Union, China, and India constitute two-thirds of global energy demand. They also produce two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and possess two-thirds of existing nuclear power plants.

But in addition to the Obama administration’s aggregate pledges on power plants, China and India are also watching the way that the U.S. goes about getting those cuts. These aggregate numbers have a tendency to mask where much of the action really is taking place. In the same way that the EU’s various countries implement EU pledges on climate change, America’s 50 states will be the front lines in the new EPA proposals. Likewise, in India and China, states, provinces, and localities are often key movers on energy issues. Whether it is drilling for oil and gas, mining coal, or promoting renewable energy, local laws and local political support help to determine success or failure.

When it comes to establishing national policies on fighting climate change, different regions face off against one another in China and India. It is a dance familiar to Americans, who are used to the political tango between climate-conscious states like California and New York on the one hand, and pro–fossil fuel states like West Virginia and Texas on the other.

In India and China, where energy resources are located and also where they are needed are major factors that influence national energy policies. Depending on the abundance or dearth of resources, some Indian states and Chinese provinces often have more in common with one another across borders than they do with other provinces or states within their own country. Energy-rich regions all struggle with how to turn underground resources into sustainable jobs. Places that have succeeded in energy-intensive manufacturing often struggle with how to get access to more fuel as well as with how to control pollution.

For this reason, I will be sharing a series of blog posts about the energy situation and subnational policies in two countries that will have a huge impact on future climate emissions: India and China. My colleagues have already written about the federal politics of climate change solutions in the U.S. and about Europe’s climate strategy, and they’ll continue to track these issues in the coming months.

How Local Solutions in the Big Four Will Change the Climate Change Conversation

The federal dimension to climate and energy politics is not a new development in the United States and Europe. The EU has been a leader in combating climate change, mostly because the three major European powers—Germany, England, and France—made costly decisions to shift from coal to nuclear power and natural gas in the late 1980s. Energy and environment officials from these countries, and a few like-minded northern European partners, were able to convince southern and eastern members of the EU to adopt long-term emissions-cutting goals.  The southern and eastern members’ ability to meet those goals, however, remains an uncertainty, particularly as the EU looks ahead to deeper reductions before 2030. Poland, Slovakia, and Italy still have a long way to go to bring down their carbon emissions, making only a little progress in the last decade.

Similarly, in the United States, the effort to address global warming has largely been led by states that hug the East and West Coasts, and which have been looking for action for decades—regardless of political party affiliations. Republican governors often took the lead in those places, such as Schwarzenegger in California, Pataki in New York, and Romney in Massachusetts, each of whom actually signed state-level climate change laws. Senators from most of the American South and West have helped to block national climate laws. And while Republican governors signed state-level climate laws into effect, Democrats in West Virginia, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Missouri helped lead the fight against national legislation.

China and India each have states that are innovating in the fight against climate change and have been urging their leaders to take a more proactive stance. China and India also have similar internal political battles ahead with more energy-dependent states. The poorer regions in China and India that are most desperate for growth are likely to view the effort to cut greenhouse gases as a luxury they cannot yet afford. That may be shortsighted, but it certainly describes a reality that many Americans and Europeans know too well in their own systems, even if they are unaware of the economics of their Asian counterparts.

Behind each global policy challenge lies a Chinese province or an Indian state that has its own agenda—just like Germany and Poland, or California, West Virginia, and Louisiana. Each sees energy or climate change policy through different lenses. Some important provinces and states are points of friction. Several others, however, could be the keys to success.

If there is one key takeaway from the efforts to deal with climate change and energy consumption in the last few decades, it is that solutions will need to come from the “bottom up,” with local leaders taking action in the way most suitable for their region. This is true for the U.S., for the EU, and for China and India.