Tag Archives: climate change

Trump Hands Beijing Clear Skies For Global Climate Leadership

Air pollution at sunset, Shanghai, China, 2008

THE UNITED STATES’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, newly announced by US President Donald Trump, formally opens space for Chinese and European leadership on the issue that has been expanding ever since candidate Trump denounced climate change as a Chinese hoax designed to weaken US industry.

Having committed on the campaign trail to withdrawing the United States from the deal within 100 days of taking office, Trump now says he will make good on that promise and seek renegotiation of the accord on terms that are not as “draconian” for the United States.

The United States accounts for more than 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a share exceeded only by China. Its withdrawal from an agreement that depends on the largest polluters making some of the deepest cuts to emissions inevitably weakens the accord’s chances of success.

During a trip to Germany, Prime Minister Li Keqiang reiterated ahead of Trump’s announcement Beijing’s commitment to the accord. China and the European Union are expected to issue a joint statement to bolster it  in the light of Trump’s abandonment (Update: they did). They are likely to reaffirm their joint commitment to cut back on fossil fuels, develop new green technologies and raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer countries cut their emissions.

Beijing’s position on climate change has swung through 180 degrees. Once considering international efforts to get it to limit carbon emissions to be an unwanted interference in its internal affairs, China has since become a strong proponent of efforts to halt global warming — and to develop global leadership in climate mitigation technologies.

Li will be familiar with the smog-choked skies above Beijing and a host of other cities (the picture above is of Shanghai). And also with the increasing popular unease at environmental degradation. He made a point of saying that the Paris accord was in China’s self-interest.  Certainly climate change constitutes not just a health challenge to authorities but also an economic and political threat to the Party.

However, it also offers Beijing a tremendous geopolitical opportunity. By not just rejecting the Paris accord but reneging on commitments, Trump hands China an opening to take on global leadership on what may well prove to be the defining issue of the century. Such an offer will not be refused.

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The Global Greening Of China

CHINA HAS THREE imperatives when it comes to climate change: to use the issue to cement its growing position as a world power; to deal with its domestic pollution problems so that they don’t become a political issue that could challenge the Party’s primacy; and to establish industrial leadership in ‘green’ technologies including renewable fuels.

The symbolism of Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama jointly ratifying the Paris climate change agreement (Cop 21) will not be lost domestically or internationally. Xi will take the opportunity of the G20 meeting in Hangzhou to reinforce that message that China is at the centre of world affairs and that, as state media put it, developed and emerging countries are “in the same boat, with China charting the course ahead this time”.

The move by the world’s two biggest polluters is clearly a significant step for the climate change deal, which needs 55 nations accounting for at least 55% of the world’s emissions for it to come into effect. China and the United States raise the percentage at a stroke to more than 40% from 1%. It just now needs the EU and a couple of other countries to follow suit to get the deal over the line.

Beijing’s Paris accord commitment is to cut its carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65% from 2005 levels by 2030 and to increase non-fossil fuel sources in primary energy consumption to about 20%. While those targets don’t necessarily mean a cut in absolute emissions levels, it will slow their growth meaningfully. China committed at Paris that they would peak in ‘around 2030’.

The large steps China has taken in energy efficiency and the rebalancing of the economy away from industrialisation and towards more services will aid it in hitting those goals. Becoming more of a low-carbon economy will also help achieve its domestic goals of lessening pollution, a perpetual point of popular perturbation and protest. Environmental NGOs are kept on a short leash for fear they are a seed of political organisation.

At the same time, China has developed into the world’s largest market for hydropower, nuclear, wind and solar energy and increasingly aims to make those indigenous industries, serving both the ambitions of developing low-carbon urbanisation and bringing economic development to some of the poorest but also windiest and sunniest provinces. As relatively new industries, there is also more opportunity for China’s new found desire to be innovative to flourish, as well as for its manufacturers to find new export markets for wind turbines, solar panels and even nuclear reactors.

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COP21: Follow The Money

Paris skyline

THE PARIS CLIMATE talks — formally the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) — starting on November 30 will be a political bun fight in which China as the world’s biggest polluter will be at the centre. But the how, who and who pays arguments over environmentally sustainable development are only another front in the wider competitive-cooperative struggle between North and South for global influence.

Whatever the outcome of the Paris meeting, China will come off a winner.

The goal of COP21 is for more than 190 countries to agree a global and legally binding treaty that will let the world avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In practice, this means an enforceable plan to keep global warming below 2℃ by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The countries that account for 80% of the world’s emissions, three-quarters of which are accounted for by China, the United States, the 28 European Union members and India, have submitted plans for how they will play their part. However, these Intended Nationally Determined Contributions in aggregate fall short of what is needed to meet the 2℃ target.

China’s INDC’s are conventional enough: a speeding up of the transformation of energy production and consumption to mitigate increasing greenhouse gas emissions; continuing improvements in energy efficiency as the economy is rebalanced in a sustainable way; and increases in forest carbon sinks.

In hard numbers:

  • Peak CO2 emissions to be reached by 2030 at the latest;
  • Cut carbon intensity by 60-65% from 2005 levels;
  • 20% of energy produced by renewables by 2030 (10% in 2013); and
  • Increase forest coverage by 4.5 billion cubic meters compared to 2005.

These targets build on ones set out in 2009. That year, Beijing said that by 2020 it would lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% from 2005’s levels, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15%, and increase forests by 40 million hectares and the forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters compared to 2005 levels.

In its INDC, Beijing claimed that by 2014, it had achieved:

  • 33.8% lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP than the 2005 level;
  • 11.2% non-fossil fuels share in primary energy consumption;
  • Forested area and forest stock volume increased by 21.6 million hectares and 2.188 billion cubic meters respectively compared to the 2005 levels;
  • 300 gigawatts of installed hydropower capacity — 2.57 times of that in 2005;
  • 95.81 gigawatts of on-grid wind power capacity — 90 times of that of 2005);
  • 28.05 gigawatts of solar power installed capacity of — 400 times of that of 2005; and
  • 19.88 gigawatts of nuclear power installed capacity — 2.9 times of that for 2005.
  • Also, China has initiated pilot carbon-trading markets in seven provinces and cities and low-carbon development pilots in 42 provinces and cities, with a goal of having a nationwide cap-and-trade market in place by 2017.

All of which is real progress, though not sufficient to have kept up fully with the growing economy, as the skies over Beijing bear daily witness.

China’s COP21 targets still look ambitious, unlikely to be achieved without either technological advances both to improve energy intensity (units of energy required per unit of GDP created) and to help nuclear energy replace coal-fired power generation, or a slowdown in the economy to reduce power demand. On some estimates, the later would mean China’s GDP growth rate slowing to at least 4.5% a year for a sustained period in the decade to 2030.

All of which helps to explain why the politics of climate control will be so confrontational at COP21 behind the feel-good words the politicians will spout.

As de facto spokesnation for developing economies, China wants the rich nations to carry the much more of the burden of reducing emissions than poor ones. Its argues that historically the developed countries have gone through their industrial revolutions and so should not expect developing economies to have artificial constraints put on them as they now go through theirs.

The motives for such a position fall along a spectrum running from fairness — developed nations shouldn’t get a ‘free ride’ on pollution just because it occurred centuries ago — to nefariousness — the old world powers are using climate change to hold back the development of new rivals arising in the East and South.

Thus, China wants ‘ambitious economy-wide absolute quantified emissions reductions targets’ for developed countries, while calling only for ‘enhanced mitigation actions’ on the part of developing economies such as itself. Furthermore, it wants developed countries to provide the finance, technology and capacity-building for developing nations to do so.

The proposed financing is scarcely chump change. Beijing wants it to start at $100 billion in 2020 and then increase yearly, with the monies coming from the West’s public purses, not private sources. It proposes that this financing is channeled through the UN’s Green Climate Fund, a somewhat misbegotten five-year-old UN agency that would be made directly accountable to COP21.

So far, the fund has barely raised more money than needed to cover its set-up costs and is wracked by internal disagreements over what it should be funding and how. As of May this year it had received pledges of only $10.2 billion towards its own $100 billion-by-2020 target.

Developing nations don’t like the fund’s focus on private investment, which in practice means Western investing institutions. Environmentalists don’t like its acceptance of fossil-fuel investments, and no one likes the fund’s governance, hence Beijing’s effort to switch it to public funding and put it under COP21’s authority.

The third area of contention at Paris beyond targets and where the money is coming from will be technology. Beijing wants COP21 to impose a clear requirement on developed nations to transfer technologies and R&D to developing countries ‘based on their technology needs’. That would give developing economies, including China, carte blanche to demand virtually any technologies from the developed nations that it wants.

China has need of such technologies, given the challenges of its COP21 proposals. It will not be able to displace coal from the central place it now occupies in the energy mix without a significant increase in nuclear power generation. China is developing an indigenous nuclear industry apace, but its third-generation technology remains unproven, its capacity for making key components for reactors is uneven, and it has limited abilities in spent fuel reprocessing and storage.

Free licence to demand technology transfers from Washington and Paris to tackle any and all of those problems so its nuclear industry can make itself internationally competitive is not going to be acceptable to the West.

However, COP21 will likely yield an agreement, not the vague promises of previous UN climate summits. China will, of course, not get everything it is calling for going in. Binding hard 2030 targets on developed nations are unlikely, as are commitments by the West to any significant public funding of the Global Climate Fund or carte blanche technology transfers.

A mechanism for strengthening national carbon reduction targets every five years is likely. Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama agreed when they met in September to support such an approach, calling for COP21 to establish reporting and accountability that would strengthen emission reduction targets over time.

That, along with some concrete steps towards mobilizing financial and technical resources to assist the power countries to develop sustainable low-carbon and climate resilient economies would be achievement enough in Paris.

These outcomes would give Beijing plenty of advantages. It would get flexibility in recalibrating its tough 2030 domestic emissions targets and constrain Western efforts to impose a World Bank IFC-type private-sector financing model on climate mitigation.

At the same time, it would be free to expand its bilateral climate lending channels such as its South-South Climate Fund. Through its other burgeoning channels such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICS’ development bank, and its Silk Road Fund, it can position itself as a key player in global low-carbon investment through its overseas infrastructure and project finance.

With that would come another broad, long-term ratcheting up of Beijing’s global clout, and especially if the next U.S. administration is a more isolationist and climate-change-rejecting Republican one.

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Himalayan Glaciers Not Shrinking As Fast As Feared

More than half a billion Chinese living along the rivers that flow from the Himalayas are at risk from water shortages as a result of disappearing glaciers. If they can take any comfort, it is that a new analysis of satellite data from 2003 to 2010 shows that the glaciers are shrinking up to 10 times less quickly than previously feared.

“The good news is that the glaciers are not losing mass as fast as we thought,” says W. Tad Pfeffer, a professor at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and a co-author of the study, published in Nature. “The bad news is that they are still losing a lot of water.”

Mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears provides some beautiful and disturbing shots of the melting glaciers of the Himalayas. This video was the Asia Society’s entry in a 2010 Asian Development Bank video competition on climate change.

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China To Trial Carbon Trading Market For Three To Five Years

China plans to run its pilot carbon trading market for three to five years before extending it nationally. That sliver of information comes from Su Wei, the government’s chief climate negotiator, speaking at the international climate talks in Durban, South Africa to devise a successor to the Kyoto accord. As we noted ahead of those talks, two provinces, Guangdong and Hubei, and five cities, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai, will comprise the initial market, which is likely to start trading in 2013. But details still remain nearly as sketchy as they were in Beijing’s recent white paper on climate change.

Meanwhile, at the same meeting, officials have indicated that Beijing could set absolute caps on its carbon emissions by as soon as 2020. This would be a significant shift from China’s position that emission reduction targets should be set in terms of energy intensity (the amount of energy used to create a unit of GDP).  There is a danger of reading too much into conference comments this early, but they could imply that Beijing is preparing to take the initiative in breaking the deadlock with the U.S. over which country moves first in cutting fossil fuel emissions, and in making an early play for the capital and technology that will be needed for developing nations to develop low-carbon economies.

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China To Hold Growing Sway Over World Energy Industry

The International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook (to 2035) says China’s demand for energy will rise by 75% between 2008 and 2035, accounting for 22% of the world’s energy consumption, up from 17% today. Put another way, China will account for 36% of the growth in the world’s energy demand (see snapshot of IEA graph below). The IEA’s projections are based on the assumption that governments will do no more than meet any commitments already given on energy conservation, greenhouse gas emission reductions and the phasing out of fossil-fuel subsidies. (That so-called New Policies Scenario is the most conservative of the three sets of assumptions about governments’ intentions the IEA makes.)

It is hard to overstate the growing importance of China in global energy markets. [The IEA’s] preliminary data suggest that China overtook the United States in 2009 to become the world’s largest energy user, Strikingly, Chinese energy use was only half that of the United States in 2000….Prospects for further growth remain strong, given that China’s per-capital consumption level remains low, at only one-third of the OECD average.

The IEA also says that China’s growing need to import fossil fuels will have an increasingly large impact on international markets. It will account for half the net growth in global crude oil demand over the period, largely because it will need more fuel for cars and lorries. It will also have a voracious appetite for natural gas, the more so if coal use is restrained on environmental grounds. Its needs are likely to make the oil and gas producing nations of Central Asia such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan which draw from the Caspian basin a significant new energy region. Similarly, Beijing’s push to develop new low-carbon energy technologies could help drive down the costs of those through economies of scale.

In China, energy demand triples between 2008 and 2035. Over the next 15 years, China is projected to add generating capacity equivalent to the current total installed capacity of the United States.

Electricity generation is likely to be at the forefront of the transition to low-carbon technologies. The greatest scope for increasing the use of renewable energy sources in absolute terms, the IEA says, lies in power generation. China is already a leader in wind power and solar photovoltaic (PV) production as well as having become a leading supplier of the equipment thanks to strong government investment support. The IEA says China will add 335 gigawatts of wind generation capacity, 105 gigawatts of nuclear and 85 gigawatts of solar PV by 2035 (and put 8.5 million electric vehicles on its roads).  That said, coal-fired generation will remain substantial in China, with 600 gigawatts of new capacity exceeding the growth of the renewables and exceeding the current capacity of the U.S., E.U. and Japan.

The IEA takes aim at subsidies for fossil fuels, which it calls the “single most effective measure to cut energy demand”. It wants them phased out to end the market distortions that make it more difficult for low-carbon technologies to get development investment. It says that such subsidies amounted to $312 billion worldwide in 2009, though that was down from $558 billion the previous year. China was the fifth largest subsidizer in 2009, behind Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and India, at just shy of $20 billion. About half of that went to electricity generated from fossil fuels and most of the rest equally to coal and oil. Beijing has been moving towards more market based pricing for energy, but as the figures show, there is still a ways to go.

The subsidies analysis was done at the behest to the G-20, whose leaders are meeting in Seoul shortly and where climate change and the successor to the expiring Kyoto protocol on climate change will be on the agenda. The IEA lays out how heavily the burden lies on China and the U.S. to cut back emissions if the ideal target of limiting the increase in global temperatures to 2°C is to be hit by 2035: 32% China, 18% the U.S. 50% rest of the world. Low-carbon technologies would need to account, the IEA reckons, for over three-quarters of global power generation by then and plug-in hybrids & electric vehicles for 39% of new sales. That day may not come, or at least not fully, but the era of cheap fossil fuels is over. China is already investing heavily in those areas and giving itself a first mover advantage that the rest of the world may find difficult to claw back.

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Amid Finger Pointing, Tianjin Climate Meeting Makes Scant Progress

The climate talks in Tianjin have ended. They have done little to smooth the path to the Cancun session of the U.N.Framework Convention on Climate Change that opens at the end of next month save on the creation of the $100 billion fund rich countries agreed at the Copenhagen round of talks to provide poor countries to help deal with the impact of climate change.

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The ambition of the Tianjin meeting was always limited: to create a checklist of not what would be done at Cancun, but what might be done. Even that was barely achieved. “This week has got us closer to a structured set of decisions that can be agreed in Cancun. Governments addressed what is doable in Cancun, and what may have to be left to later,” the U.N.’s Christiana Figueres (right, pictured at the meeting’s opening) said in her end-of-meeting statement (video, speaking notes), a less-than-ringing endorsement of success. The European Commission’s Jurgen Lefevere was closer to the mark when he called the outcome “very patchy”.

The biggest of the leave-to-latter issues is the deadlock between the world’s two biggest energy consumers and polluters, China and the U.S. with the U.S. saying that China won’t agree to global binding, verifiable emissions curbs and China saying the U.S. and developed economies have to commit first to doing much more than the developing nations as they polluted first. Both Beijing and Washington accuse the other of trying to subvert the U.N. process in their separate ways.

There was some tetchiness between the two countries’ officials throughout the Tianjin meeting, as noted in Xinhua’s report. Having been blamed for the failure the Copenhagen meeting, Beijing is getting its share of finger-pointing in this time. The risk for a binding global treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012 is that climate change becomes another bickering bilateral dispute between Washington and Beijing.

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