Monday, November 06, 2006

China: time for a politics of climate change (2)

In early October I drafted an article for chinadialogue on China and the politics of climate change (based on this, with some figures amended) . I have updated the article in the light of some events over the last month, and am posting the new version here today on the first day of the Nairobi conference. As with the previous version, this is an invitation to engage. If you see flaws or gaps in the figures or the argument please let me know.

China: time for a politics of climate change

The richest industrialised nations need to act much faster and more effectively to tackle climate change; but failure in the West is not a reason for people in China not to act urgently too. China is close to or already exceeds its share of sustainable emissions. For reasons of basic self interest as well as natural justice, it is time for people in China to start engaging more actively with each other and the outside world on one of the most difficult challenges on the planet: the politics of climate change. This article is an invitation for engagement for activists and others both inside and outside China.

It is sometimes said that, given the track record of the richest industrialised nations in failing to reduce their emissions, Westerners are in no position to tell China what to do, still less other countries rising from poverty. Here I argue that it is time to move on from such a polarised position, and to think in new ways about the technical and political challenges ahead. The argument comes in three parts: 1. The “safe” level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is probably much lower than is generally understood; 2. China is close to and will soon exceed its fair share of what is already an unsustainable burden of pollution, and; 3. This situation presents enormous political challenges, requiring extraordinary creativity and leadership at many levels within China and by the Chinese people internationally.

1. The “safe” level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is probably much lower than is generally understood.

Unless there is radical change in the way the world produces the energy it needs and how land and other resources are used, mankind is likely to change the global climate in ways that will impose big dangers and high costs on people and nations worldwide.

China will not be exempt from the changes. Three key impacts are described by Stephan Harrison in his contribution to chinadialogue. Higher temperatures will shrink the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau, disrupting the water supply of many hundreds of millions people and the agriculture on which they depend. Climate change, allied to unsustainable land-use practices, will increase the number and size of dust storms from China’s deserts. And the thawing of previously frozen soils would both increase the scale of desertification and contribute to positive feedback to global warming caused by the release of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide from frozen soils as they thaw.

Other effects of global warming would include more storms of the kind that displaced millions of people and caused $15bn in damage to coastal provinces (according to reports from Xinhua in August 2006). And, as former US Vice President Al Gore points out in his film An Inconvenient Truth, if as now seems possible, warming causes a substantial part of land-based ice in the West Antartic Ice shelf and Greenland to melt, then sea level rise will displace tens of millions of people from the regions of Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere.

To avoid, or at least reduce the risk, of dangerous climate change with impact such as these it is necessary to:

  • first, sharply reduce and then stop the increasing rate of emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and;
  • second, reduce total global emissions in order to prevent atmospheric concentrations reaching substantially higher levels that trend lines indicate.

To date, much international discussion at the interface of science and politics has taken as a rule of thumb that, as a first step, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) should be not exceed approximately twice concentrations before the modern industrial era. A typical range used is 500 to 560 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere (see, for example, Socolow et al, Science 2004, and Scientific American, Sept 2006).

Each part per million of CO2 corresponds to about 2.1bn tonnes of atmospheric carbon. The current level – about 380ppm – is 800bn tonnes. 560ppm would mean about 1,200 tonnes. On this reckoning the world adds 400bn tonnes of carbon to the global atmosphere, but no more, and not exceed this target.

It is sometimes argued that total global emissions of up to twice this amount, or 800bn tonnes, would be OK because vegetation, soils and the oceans will soak up half. But this argument is open to challenge. A warmer climate is likely to mean that vegetation and soils become a net source rather than a sink of carbon, leading to a positive feedback (warmer soils means more of the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane, more greenhouse gases means warmer soils and so on). And using the oceans as a sink causes acidification that scientists now think may cause the most rapid and disruptive change to life in the seas since catastrophic events tens of millions of years ago (see Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, Royal Society August 2005 and The other CO2 problem, New Scientist August 2006).

So it is far from sure that atmospheric concentrations of around 560ppm will be “safe” in the sense that this level will keep the risk of disasterous impacts, including those described for China, within acceptable limits.

Advisors to the British Government and others have suggested that 450 or even 400ppm of CO2 may be nearer the mark[i], with a 2 to 20% chance of a temperature increase of 5 degrees Centigrade[ii] if global greenhouse gas concentrations were stabilised at the equivalent of 430ppm CO2.

Virtually every advance in climate science points to bigger impacts and more serious consequences than previously predicted from human emissions of greenhouse gases. That being the case, caution is wise. And the time available to act is much shorter than is often thought. Currently, the combustion of coal, oil and gas, together with other activities, add approximately 7 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year. At the present rate, with no acceleration, it would probably take about 12 years for atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to reach 400ppm [iii]. Other stocks of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere by human action including methane and nitrous oxide have the effect of an additional 15% of CO2 so the actual human forcing on the atmosphere when CO2 levels are 400ppm will actually be equivalent to 460ppm.

If, at such a time, it became clear that a higher concentration would cause catastrophic damage, then to avoid those impacts all emissions would have to cease immediately[iv]. Since this is virtually unthinkable, there may well be much less than twelve years for the world to begin a rapid, rational and effective transition to a very low carbon economy.

It is likely that the risk of catastrophic climate change is already as much as one in five. The risk is increasing with every passing month that the world fails to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. It’s like a game of Russian roulette: there is a bullet in one of the chambers of the revolver, and we are in the process of putting in a second bullet. The gun is pointed at the head of everyone in the world.

2. China is close to and will soon exceed its fair share of what is already an unsafe burden of pollution

As mentioned above, global emissions are currently about 7bn tonnes of carbon a year. China is the second largest single polluter, although the European Union as a whole emits more.

Estimates of China’s total emissions vary[v]. According to the Energy Information Agency[vi], China accounted for 14.1% of total world emissions of CO2 in 2003. This accounts only for emissions from fossil fuel combustion and does not take into account other sources of greenhouse gases. It indicates that the Chinese contribution in that year was, at a mimimum, just under one billion tonnes of carbon (7 x 0.141 = 0.987).

But whatever the exact figures on Chinese emissions and those of other countries, there is some simple arithmetic from which we cannot escape – assuming, that is, that we want to start by stabilising global emissions at around today’s levels of 7 billion tonnes.

If present day global emissions were allocated equally to every person in the world, China – with something like a fifth (about 22%) of the global population – would be entitled to about 1.5bn tonnes.

Energy consumption in China is currently growing at nearly 6% (in fact 5.7%) per year. If 10% of that additional demand is met by so called zero-carbon sources such as wind and nuclear power (which may be controversial for other reasons), carbon emissions will still increase by more than 5% a year[vii]. At this rate it would be between about 8 years from 2003 for China to be emitting 1.5bn tonnes of carbon. And that means that by 2011 – little more than four years away – China could be exceeding its “fair” global share. Several scenarios indicate that by 2020 China will be contributing around 2 billion tonnes of carbon per year to the global atmosphere[viii].

3. This situation presents enormous political challenges, requiring extraordinary creativity and leadership at many levels within China and by the Chinese people internationally.

One of the first things that comes up when China and climate change are mentioned in the same breath is that the richest countries, historically and still today, are by far the biggest emitters per head, and have the responsibility to act first. This is certainly true. And it is often stressed, including, on chinadialogue, by Yu Hongyuan of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

The responsibility of the rich industrialised nations to act first was recognised in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. China is a signatory to the Protocol, and benefits from some investment in clean and renewable energy projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (see, for example, World's Biggest Greenhouse Gas Deal Takes Effect in Win-Win Situation for China, Industrialized Nations ). The European Union is also offering some additional assistance with projects such as carbon capture and storage for one coal fired plant by 2020 (see the article by Jon Gibbins on chinadialogue). The United States, which has not ratified the Protocol, says it will assist through something called the Asia Pacific Partnership which does not set targets to reduce emissions. The majority of American businesses leaders expect that US to join some form of cap and trade system for greenhouse gases within a few years.

Current actions in the richest countries are hugely, even grotesquely, inadequate given the need for cuts. So far, very few have reduced their emissions at all except as fortuitous byproduct of other measures. For example, in my own country, Britain, emissions have been rising continuously for more than ten years, following a “dash for gas” which replaced much coal-fired generation with cleaner natural gas powered turbines. The unified German Federal Republic was allowed to take the carbon credits from the collapse of the economy of the former East Germany, which had been powered largely on lignite, one of the dirtiest form of coal.

The richest countries need to massively ratchet up their commitment to energy efficiency, demand management and clean energy at home and abroad. China and other countries should press them to act faster and more effectively. But neither China nor anyone else can cannot afford to wait for them to fail.

Recall that China will soon pass its “fair” share of total global emissions which we will need to reduce soon. Once China exceeds its fair share, it will no longer have the luxury of pointing the finger at other countries merely because they are even worse greenhouse gas polluters. Other, poorer countries want their place in the sun too. And China, for them, will have become a member of the club of global “bad guys”.

Hundreds of millions of people have risen from poverty since China began reforms about a quarter of a century ago. More live in hope of a similar transformation. But unless future development is undertaken with substantially lower emissions the foundations of China’s prosperity and its future potential will be in jeopardy. The same is true of the wider world to which China is ever more interlinked.

The political challenges to achieving greener growth and distributing its benefits widely and equitably are enormous. Support and advocacy by some at high levels of government, which occurs both in the West and China, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Powerful interests which profit from environmental destruction stand in the way of progress. This means that the challenges are political as well as technological.

Government and civil society in China can learn something from the manifold failures and limited successes in Western countries. On the plus side, countries like Britain now have something like a “mainstream” politics of climate – mainstream in the sense that the major political parties compete in pledging their commitment to green growth, and the issue is extensively debated in the media. Even in the United States – often considered the greatest obstacle to progress – the majority of citizens support action and some politicians are beginning to articulate the need for change. For example, Senator Jim Jeffords and Congressman Henry Waxman have said that the US needs to cut its emissions by at least 80%.

On 30 October the British government published a detailed assessment of the economic impacts of climate change. A team led by former World Bank chief economist Nick Stern concluded that the need for action was urgent, that acting now will be much cheaper than not acting, and that it is the only way to protect future economic growth in all countries. Crucially, “strong deliberate policies by goverments are essential to motivate change”. The British government has said it will introduce a bill in the next parliamentary session to address the challenge.

Many civil society groups in Britain welcome such rhetoric, but are not convinced the words will be translated into effective action because so many existing policies, from transport through regulation of the building industry, point in the opposite direction.

On 4 November some tens of thousands of delegates from some of these groups, which comprise environment and conservation organisations, churches, unions and womens’ and others organisations, and have a combined membership of many millions, took part in one of a series of demonstrations in over 50 countries, including some of the poorest and most vulnerable such as Bangladesh, calling for faster action to reduce emissions by the rich countries. In Britain the environmental group Greenpeace took more radical action by occupying and partly shutting down a coal-fired power station.

The path to a politics of climate change may be very different in China to that in the West. Certainly, westerners are in no position to tell Chinese people what they should do. But because this problem concerns all of us, it will help to share our experience – both failures and successes. China has great resources to draw on, including traditional values described on chinadialogue by Martin Palmer, some contemporary ideas discussed on chinadialogue by Pan Yue and campaigning such as that pursued by Ma Jun and his colleagues (and described here on Chinadialogue) .

At the recent summit in Beijing with 40 African leaders, Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi said "we take great pride in China's strong and warm friendship with Africa". If this is to friendship is to be genuine and durable, China needs to get serious about climate change, which unchecked is likely to have an even more severe impact on the peoples of Africa than it does on China . As delegations from the world’s governments assemble in Nairobi for the climate convention, it is time for the Chinese government and people to step forward and begin to play their full part in one of the greatest challenges ever faced by humanity.

[i] see, for example, Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, Schellnhuber et al and Can 2C warming be avoided? at RealClimate

[ii] Meinhausen 2006, cited in Stern Review, page 9

[iii] The calculation here is that at a rate of 7bn tonnes a year it takes 12 years to produce 84bn tonnes. 84bn tonnes translates to an additional 40ppm in the atmosphere, but half of this is soaked up by vegetation, soils and the oceans, meaning the net addition to the atmosphere over 12 years is approx 20ppm.

[iv] Some scientists suggest that a massive programmes to draw down carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into stable sinks in soil and geological strata plus geoengineering to inject sulphates into the stratosphere could help should such a stage of crisis be reached. But such approaches are likely to be face both severe challenges of technical practicability and political acceptability.

[v] See, for example, Kyoto promises are nothing but hot air, Fred Pearce, New Scientist, 22 June 2006

[vi] Cited in supporting paper to the Stern Review on the economics of climate change

[vii] 5.7 – 0.57 = 5.13

[viii] e.g. IIASA 1, 2 & 3 as cited by Japan’s National Institute of Environmental Sciences as cited in Stern supporting paper in ref 2 above

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