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Archive for December, 2007

The China Excuse

It has to be one of the most common things people say when discussing climate change issues. “But what about China? How can we really do anything about global warming when they are building twenty million new coal power stations a minute?”

Okay, I exaggerated slightly to make a point there, but we’ve all heard the argument.

The first thing to point out is that we all know (or think we know) about the huge number of power plants they are building in China, and the surge in pollution that will inevitably go along with their huge economic growth, but nobody has stopped to ask if they are doing anything to prevent global warming. This was a point that Jonathon Porritt picked up on recently –

“One new coal-fired power station a week (though you never hear about how many power stations they are closing down), two new nuclear reactors a year (the fastest ever nuclear build programme), vast new investments in renewables (wind, PV, hydro etc) and serious efforts (at long last!) to push energy efficiency throughout the economy.” (1).

At the conference in London a few weeks ago (see previous post – ‘Be The Change, Not the Conversation’) Professor CS Kiang, an expert in air quality and advisor to the Chinese Government, was under no illusions about China’s massive increase in pollution in connection with their growth. However he also discussed what the Chinese are doing, including Chongming Island near Shanghai which is home to almost a million people with sustainability as a core principle of it’s development (2).

The Chinese are also keen to tell the world how much they have invested in renewables this year (£9.7bn), as they hope this will help persuade more developed nations that they are taking the problem seriously (3).

The second, more important point (in this context at least), is that it is not total amounts of emissions that matter most – it is the per capita amount that is more important. China may have recently ‘overtaken’ the US as the world’s largest emitter (according to a study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (4)), and if it hasn’t it soon will. Either way, the per capita emissions of the US (and many other countries including the UK) are still considerably higher than that of China. According to a the UN’s Human Development Report 2007/08 in 2004 the per capita CO2 emissions of the US and China were 20.6 and 3.8 tonnes of CO2 respectively(5).

If it was a game of ‘Preventing-Climate-Change Top Trumps’ then I can’t see the US winning. So who’s the naughty one eh?

Each person on the earth has an equal right to pollute the planet, and an equal responsibility not to. With that in mind, surely per capita emissions is the important measure here – and if that’s true, then we can all see who the ‘bad guys’ are.

And the US certainly aren’t doing themselves any favours. At the UN conference on climate change in Bali, the US’ resistance to agreeing defined targets – specifically a 40% reduction in emissions of the developed countries – has become increasingly apparent in the press, despite the Chinese, UK and EU being prepared to see this through (6,7,8). (The US are not completely alone in this position, with Japan and Canada indicating that they would prefer more emphasis on inclusion of China and India in UN proposals (8)). The main sticking point for the US is any kind of specific target. How can you have targets without a target?!?! This definitely makes the US the bad guys in Bali.

But the reality is that it doesn’t matter who the bad guys are. Everyone has to do everything in their power to prevent catastrophic climate change. If China and the US both started pumping out as much CO2 as they possibly could (some would argue they already are) then that doesn’t excuse us not doing everything we can in the UK.

Each and every country can say the same thing. We can all complain and wait for other countries to move, but the more countries take a step in the right direction the harder it is for the remaining ones to resist with the ‘but look at them!’ argument.

If, in fifty years time, we have done all we can in the UK, and we achieve a zero-carbon country, and the US and China are still pumping out CO2 emissions, then as the sea level rises and the storms and droughts wreak havoc on the world, we will be able to complain about it. But we have a hell of a long way to go in this country before we can claim that we are doing everything possible to avoid the climate crisis staring us in the face.

References
1. “China Junkie” – Jonathon Porritt, Nov. 27th 2007.
2. Chongming Island
3. “We may not get carbon deal, warns Benn” – David Adam, The Guardian Online, 13th Dec. 2007.
4. ‘China overtakes U.S. as top CO2 emitter: Dutch agency’ – Reuters, 20th June 2007.
5. “Human Development Report 2007/2008 – Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World” – United Nations Development Programme. This can be downloaded from here.
6. “Climate talks progressing despite US opposition to targets, Benn says” – David Adam, Guardian Online, 12th Dec. 2007.
7. “UN calls for 40 per cent cut in emissions by rich countries” – Daniel Howden, The Independent Online, 11th Dec. 2007.
8. “Deadlock Stymies Global Climate Talks” – Thomas Fuller and Peter Gelling, The New York Times Online, 12th Dec. 2007.

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Representatives of 180 countries are in Bali at the moment to talk about Climate Change, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. They’ve got almost two weeks to talk about a “roadmap for a future international agreement on enhanced global action to fight climate change in the period after 2012” (1), in what is the largest Climate Change Conference held to date.

Australia didn’t waste any time after getting rid of John Howard – they announced that they’re signing up to Kyoto at last, as the first official act of the new Government (2). With Kyoto in it’s final stages it’s a largely symbolic move really, but we need them on board just like everyone else, so it’s great news. It leaves the US as the only ‘first-world’ country not to have agreed to sign.

More recently in Bali, the US has been making a few headlines of its own. According to The Guardian, the US representatives at the conference said that a proposal for industrialised nations to reduce their emissions by 25-40% by 2020 was “totally unrealistic” and “unhelpful”, however the idea had been backed by the EU and Britain (3). Japan are also reported to be against the idea.

This is further indication (not that we need one) of US intention to come across as participating in climate change discussion while completely rejecting even a hint of participation in agreed emissions reductions. They have already made it quite clear that they don’t want the Bali conference to discuss actual numbers in relation to cuts. They would love to have goals, but goals that aren’t specified. Clearly they haven’t yet realised the clever idea of the British Government – create and sign up to as many targets and reductions as possible without actually expecting to be able to reach them.

But there does seem to be some good news coming from the across the water. Last Wednesday, the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to cut emissions by “about 70 per cent by 2050”(4) – a bold decision indeed, and not before time. Despite the fact that this is extremely unlikely to be enough of a cut to prevent two degrees of climate change (and therefore they might as well not bother), this gives the indication that slowly but surely things are starting to happen in the US Government.

But any encouragement that might be gained through this is soon shot to pieces when you discover that they are planning on using biofuels as a large part of their solution to fuelling their nations considerable car fleet. Apparently, half of these will be coming from sources that are not in competition with food production (4) – but that leaves another half that will. Not that it matters to them of course, because their country will be able to afford an escalating food price.

We shouldn’t expect too much from Bali. It should be kept in mind that the main objectives of the conference are “to launch negotiations on a climate change deal for the post-2012 period, to set the agenda for these negotiations and to reach agreement on when these negotiations will have to be concluded”(1). In other words start talking, talk a bit and then talk about when they should finish talking. In fact, listening to Yvo de Boer (the executive secretary) the only thing that seems to be definite so far is that there won’t be any definite new target when the conference ends (5).

Why not? Why not do it now? Take a few more weeks if needs be! Just agree something! As I see it, as long as a new agreed agenda includes scope for adjustment with the science on a regular basis a) it shouldn’t go far wrong and b) everyone can rest assured that they will have plenty of time to negotiate between re-evaluations.

This is a huge opportunity. The majority of countries on Earth are represented at this conference, and time is something we don’t have on our side. Climate change is not going to wait for more extended talks. We need a plan of action and here is a perfect opportunity to develop one.

The International Community needs to start addressing this issue with the drastic measures that it requires and the US needs to stop holding back progress in the misguided belief that it will somehow benefit their country.

References
1. United Nations Climate Change Conference.
2. Australia signs Kyoto and gets ovation at Bali – Telegraph Online, 3rd Dec. 2007.
3. US balks at Bali carbon targets – Guardian Online, 10th Dec. 2007.
4. US plan to cut greenhouse gases by 70 per cent signals change of heart on climate change – The Independent Online 9th Dec. 2007.
5. Summary of daily press briefing – United Nations Climate Change Conference, 8th Dec. 2007.

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