Written by Barry G. Rabe.

China has long contended that it does not have to take decisive steps to address climate change, shifting responsibility to the United States. This reflects the fact that historic emissions from the United States have indeed led the world and the argument that there has been no significant American public policy effort to reduce those emissions in the future. Even as annual Chinese greenhouse gas releases have eclipsed those of the United States, these factors combine to provide a case for very limited Chinese engagement.

Tuesday’s elections in the United States might seem to provide additional support for the second of those familiar points, with Republican Party control of the Senate further reducing any chances of significant legislation on climate change in the near future. But this should not obscure real shifts in the American position, ones that are not likely to disappear for at least the balance of Barack Obama’s presidency.

American emissions have continued to decline, more than 10 percent from 2005 levels. This can be attributed to a range of factors, including the Great Recession, the major shift from coal to domestically-generated natural gas, and a confluence of state and federal policies. The latter have focused primarily on the vehicle emissions arena but are about to expand markedly in the electricity-generation sector.

As the President and his Environmental Protection Agency continue to roll out the Clean Power Plan, calling upon states to collectively reduce their power sector emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels from 2030, it is indeed possible that a newly-expanded Republican base in Congress will attempt to block or stall implementation. But the rules of American democracy likely constrain these limitations.

Any legislative swipe at the Clean Power Plan would require super-majorities (which Republicans lack) to surmount an inevitable veto by the President. Many states have already begun to take steps to begin to implement the plan, in some cases exploring ways to expand their established policy commitments. And public opinion suggests a fairly robust base of support for this approach.

So Congress can try to impose roadblocks but this policy is likely to move ahead, along with many others. And even with the collapse in the price of oil, it is clear that the United States is poised to continue to develop its natural gas supplies via expanding use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, perhaps the greatest global energy surprises of the past decade.

This may indeed reach the point where the United States shifts toward expanded exports of natural gas, potentially even to China and Asian neighbors. And there could in fact be ways in which some form of carbon pricing moves forward as part of any larger fiscal “grand bargain” to deal with longer-term deficit issues and need for expanded funding for infrastructure.

As a result, it is hard to see the United States withdrawing from all of the factors that have put it on an emissions trajectory that seemed unthinkable just four or five years ago. There has been no massive legislative overhaul but American politics often works, for better or worse, through incremental development of policies that mix federal and state authority.

Given this, it becomes increasingly hard for China to hide on the climate file and deflect more serious engagement due to its familiar shifting of responsibility to the United States. There is some intriguing experimentation in China, both nationally and in its more localized units that address far-reaching environmental concerns that could also connect to fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. This could be part of a more robust strategy for China to address its staggering problem of conventional air contaminants and also reduce climate-linked emissions.

Any recent pronouncements from the United Nations on climate change remain likely to have little impact in either Washington or Beijing. But there is continued movement on this issue in the United States and other major national emission sources. As a result, it may well become increasingly difficult for China to refrain from taking a more constructive role that would reflect its arrival as a great player on the international scene.

Barry G. Rabe is the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Professor of Public Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, where he directs the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP). Image credit: CC by America’s Power/Flickr

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