China Takes A Leading Role In Solving Climate Change

Mar 5th, 2013 | By | Category: Advocacy, Agriculture, Announcement, Biodiversity, Carbon, China, Development and Climate Change, Environment, Global Warming, Governance, Green House Gas Emissions, Information and Communication, Lessons, News, Pollution, Research, Vulnerability, Waste

021612_0524_ChinasFarmi1.pngSkeptical Science: A few months ago we looked at some hopeful climate news, including Mexico passing comprehensive climate legislation nearly unanimously, and many other efforts from a variety of countries to reduce their carbon emissions.

Ultimately the biggest emitters need to get on board as well.  China is often used as a scapegoat and excuse for inaction by countries like the USA whose per capita emissions are much higher, but whose overall emissions are lower due to their smaller populations.  Canada and Australia are also high on the per capita emissions list, on equal footing with the USA, and have also at times used China as a carbon scapegoat.  However, as Media Matters notes, with China beginning to take a leadership role in solving the problem, the case for climate inaction is crumbling.

Good News from China

China’s energy consumption has soared along with its economic growth, including the country’s coal consumption.  However, given concerns about both climate change and deteriorating air quality (so bad it’s sometimes called “airpocalypse“), the Chinese government is signaling a significant shift towards prioritizing environmental and public health, motivated partly by worries that complaints about bad air will lead to public unrest.  Currently China consumes 3.9 billion tonnes of coal per year, up from 1.5 billion tonnes in 2000, but policy advisors have signaled that through a focus on energy efficiency and other measures, this rapid growth of Chinese coal consumption is at an end.

“Coal consumption will peak below 4 billion tonnes”

In addition, the Chinese government appears to be on the verge of taking a critical step which has eluded the American and Canadian federal governments, implementing a carbon tax.  Although the carbon tax is expected to be modest, China plans to also increase coal taxes.  These Chinese policies may reduce global coal shipments 18% within 2 years, and may make China a net coal exporter.

These steps signal that China is taking climate change seriously and moving into a leadership role in solving the problem, which means that other countries like the USA can no longer point their fingers at China as an excuse not to take action to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.

Good News from USA

There is also good news in the USA, because American CO2 emissions hit a 20-year low in 2012.  38% of the 2012 emissions reduction was due to natural gas replacing coal, but 58% came from installing more renewable energy, including 27% from new wind energy.  This trend continued in January 2013, when 100% of the new electric capacity added in the USA came from renewable sources, primarily from 958 megawatts of wind and 267 megawatts of solar energy.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama also promised that if US Congress doesn’t tackle climate change, he will.

“…if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

And there is a lot President Obama could do on his own to tackle climate change, first and foremost if his administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moves to regulate emissions from existing power plants, which account for about 40% of annual emissions in the USA.  President Obama has just nominated Gina McCarthy to head the EPA.  McCarthy has helped shape the EPA’s strong greenhouse gas regulations to this point, and is thus a solid choice by President Obama to lead the EPA from a climate standpoint.  As Susie Cagle at Grist described her,

“McCarthy is squarely on the side of fighting climate change through sometimes aggressive policy-making.”

The Keystone XL decision is another key test.  While the pipeline itself represents a relatively small proportion of our overall carbon budget, it is nevertheless a key to opening up the Alberta tar sands, which could ultimately account for 13% of our average annual allowable carbon emissions budget if all planned projects are approved.  Dave Roberts has done some of the best work in explaining the importance of the Keystone XL decision and opposition to it, here and here.

Good News on Keystone and Canada

Since development of the tar sands would cripple any possible efforts by Canada to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, good news on preventing approval of the pipeline is good news for Canada.  And there is indeed good news.  A rally in Washington D.C. against the pipeline was the biggest ever climate rally in the USA, drawing over 35,000 participants.  That President Obama was golfing with oil men during the rally is a bad sign; however, John Kerry’s first speech as Secretary of State included some very strong language on climate change.

“If we waste this opportunity [to address climate change], it may be the only thing our generation — generations — are remembered for. We need to find the courage to leave a far different legacy,”

The final Keystone XL decision is the State Department’s to make, although Kerry does ultimately report to President Obama.  So there is a bit of a mixed bag here, but several good signs.  Much has been made of the recent State Department Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) about the Keystone XL project, but we caution against reading too much into the ultimate project decision from this report.  We will have a post on the draft EIS in the near future.

Warning Signs in Australia

Australia recently took steps to reverse its status as one of the world’s highest per capita carbon emitters by implementing a carbon tax.  However, opposition leader Tony Abbott has said that the election in September of this year is a “referendum on the carbon tax,” and at the moment he appears to have a lead in the polls.  So far the impact of the carbon tax on the Australian economy appears to be minor, as expected, while both carbon emissions from the electricity sector and energy demand have fallen recently.  In short, the carbon tax is working well, but there are worrying signs that it may nevertheless be repealed as a result of the upcoming election.

That being said, Seb Henbest estimates that there is only a 32% chance the carbon tax will be repealed after Australia’s September 14th election, so the outlook could be worse.

Good News on the Whole

Overall there is much more good news than bad on the climate front so far in 2013.  China is taking a leadership role in addressing the problem, and the USA is taking some significant steps as well.  This may have some impact on Canadian emissions as well, depending on the ultimate US Keystone XL decision.  Australia’s carbon tax is faring well, but faces an opposition threat nonetheless.

But in America, emissions are down, wind is already cost-competitive with new coal power, and a major solar project was approved in New Mexico at a price cheaper than coal.  In Australia, wind is already cheaper than coal, and solar is right behind.  With renewable technologies becoming more efficient and cheaper, they are also becoming more cost-effective to implement.  This will accelerate with a price on carbon emissions, or with EPA greenhouse gas regulations.

There is still hope to solve the climate crisis yet.

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