“It [the Paris Accord] was an America second, third, or fourth kind of approach. China and India had no obligations under the agreement until 2030.”
— Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, interview on “Fox & Friends,” April 13, 2017
During an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” the EPA administrator denounced the Paris Accord, the global agreement on curbing climate change, as a “bad deal for America” that “we need to exit in my opinion.” Asked his biggest objection to the accord, he claimed that China and India had no obligations until 2030, even though “they are polluting far more than we are.”
Despite our queries, we did not get an explanation for Pruitt’s remarks from the EPA, but we have good news for him. If that’s his biggest problem, it’s solved! His objection is based on a misunderstanding of the agreement: China and India are already hard at work at meeting goals set for 2030.
Pruitt appears to be stuck in a time warp. His concerns might have made more sense if he had been referring to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which did not require developing nations such as China and India to face legally binding requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That agreement was rejected by President George W. Bush.
The Paris agreement, reached in 2015 and effective in 2016, took a different approach, with all of the nearly 200 signatories agreeing to lower emissions, based on plans that they submitted. The goal is to keep average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels until 2100. Global temperature has risen about 1 degree Celsius in the last half-century.
The plans are not legally binding, but there is a distinction made between developing and developed countries in that developed countries are expected to reduce actual emissions, while developing countries would lower emissions based on units tied to measures such as gross domestic product or economic output.
“Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets,” the text says. “Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.”
The distinction is made because developed countries, on a per capita basis, often produce more greenhouse gases than developing countries. Pruitt claimed that China and India and are polluting more than the United States, but that’s misleading.
China (but not India) does produce more carbon dioxide than the United States, but it has nearly 1.4 billion people compared to 325 million for the United States. So, on a per capita basis, the United States in 2015 produced more than double the carbon dioxide emissions of China — and eight times more than India. While some small countries have higher per capita pollution rates than the United States, the United States is by far the largest emitter of carbon dioxide among the 10 most populous countries.
So what did China and India pledge to do in their plans?
China, in its submission, said that, compared to 2005 levels, it would seek to cut its carbon emissions by 60 to 65 percent per unit of GDP by 2030. India said it would reduce its emissions per unit of economic output by 33 to 35 percent below 2005 by 2030.
Note that both countries pledge to reach these goals by 2030, meaning they are taking steps now to meet their commitments. India, for instance, seeks to have renewable power make up 40 percent of its power base by 2030, so it is investing heavily in solar energy. The country is now on track to become the world’s third-largest solar power market in 2018, after China and the United States. China is also investing heavily in renewable energy.
The United States, under President Barack Obama, pledged to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. It was an ambitious program, but President Trump is rapidly abandoning the regulations and programs that Obama hoped would help the United States meet the goal.
The Climate Action Tracker, an independent science-based assessment that tracks emission commitments and actions of countries, rates China and India as making “medium” efforts toward addressing climate change, not entirely consistent with achieving the Paris goal of limiting warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
The United States is also rated as medium. But the group has said that if Trump follows through on an executive order that seeks to roll back Obama administration efforts, the United States would be rated as making “inadequate” efforts. Under the Trump approach, U.S. emissions would be roughly the same in 2025 and 2030 as today, the group said.
Update: An EPA spokeswoman responded after this fact check was published. “Administrator Pruitt was referring to no emission reduction obligations,” she said, adding that (as we noted) “no one has any obligations regarding emissions reduction activities under the Paris Agreement because it is ‘non-binding.’” She pointed to China’s submission that it would try to make its best efforts to peak its emissions by 2030. “They are pretty clear that they aren’t really agreeing to do anything,” she said. Of course, this ignores that fact that China and India are actually taking steps to try to meet these commitments, with China on track to peak by 2025, if not sooner.
The Pinocchio Test
Pruitt clearly needs to brush up on the Paris Accord, as it’s false to claim that China and India have “no obligations” until 2030.
China and India, just like the United States, have made commitments that are supposed to be fulfilled by 2030, meaning they have to take action now in order to meet those goals. The United States made more substantial commitments — which the Trump administration is abandoning — because the United States, on a per capita basis, is a much bigger polluter than either country.
Pruitt earns Four Pinocchios.
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