The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

A “free pass” on climate action? No way.

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Community residents walk down an unpaved road of Karuvelli village in Nagappattinam, India. Community residents walk down an unpaved road of Karuvelli village in Nagappattinam, India. Photo: Atul Loke / Panos for Oxfam America

Critics suggest the Paris Agreement lets countries like China and India off the hook. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This week, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act, to prevent the US from withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

As part of the debate, I’ve seen critics suggest the agreement gives countries like China and India “a free pass” on climate action. To the contrary, the Paris Agreement is our best chance to hold all countries accountable to their climate commitments. And that’s a good thing, because the world can’t limit climate change’s impact on the poorest and most vulnerable unless all major emitters are part of the solution.

What the Paris Agreement actually does

Americans understandably want the US economy to stay competitive around the world, especially when it comes to rising powers like China and India. Under Republicans and Democrats alike, that’s why a “level playing field” has been the official US goal—the idea that every country should meet some basic standards for worker safety, protection of air and water, and unfair subsidies. It’s not easy work, but the good news is that the world secured an indispensable tool in this effort: the Paris Agreement.

Even though the landmark pact came together in 2015, the agreement’s nitty-gritty “rules of the road” were only finalized late last year. At the heart of those new rules are some of the most rigorous accountability standards that the entire world, including China and India, has ever agreed to. And now the time has come for both countries to tell us if they’re living up to the pledges they’ve made—and face real scrutiny for the first time.

“Holding China and India accountable” doesn’t just happen overnight. The US can’t snap its fingers and make large competitor economies match American standards. Instead, you need strong international accountability mechanisms designed to match words with deeds—to verify whether countries are actually “walking to the walk,” and not just “talking the talk.” And that’s what the Paris Agreement was designed to do. So you say you’re going to pollute less and reduce emissions? Prove it.

No “free passes”

Some critics say China is allowed to “do nothing” until 2030 under the Paris Agreement.

Thankfully, that’s just not true. In 2014, China announced new plans to peak their emissions and massively expand renewable energy by 2030—and they’ve been sticking by that plan. Yes, their deadline is 2030, but that doesn’t mean they get to sit on their hands for 12 years.

By the same token, if you announce that you’re going to lose 20 pounds by next year, you can’t just “do nothing” until December 31st. You’ve got to start working now—and working hard. Do China and India need to do more when it comes to climate change and the environment? Sure—everyone, including the US, needs to do more, especially under this anti-science administration. But they’re not getting a free pass.

That’s why the Paris Agreement’s new transparency and accountability system is such a big deal. No one has to just trust that other countries are doing their fair share: the agreement now allows the US to live up to Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” mantra and actually look under the hood of other countries’ climate pledges. President Trump’s State Department praised the new system, noting last December that, “The outcome took a significant step toward holding our economic competitors accountable for reporting their emissions in a manner consistent with standards the United States has met since the early 1990s.” Getting other countries to respect a level playing field? That’s something everyone wants.

No one seriously argues that walking away from the Paris Agreement and its accountability system somehow does more to hold China to higher standards. So let’s put to bed the notion that anyone—India and China included—get to do whatever they want under the Paris Agreement. Having an honest conversation about climate change is impossible unless we acknowledge these basic realities, and H.R. 9 does just that.

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