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China Takes a Leading Role in Solving Climate Change

Posted on 4 March 2013 by dana1981

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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Comments

Comments 1 to 31:

  1. Phew, actually quite heartening - thank you!

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  2. I've said many times, much of China's current energy consuption is the direct result of production of goods for western markets.  So, on a very real level, a portion of China's emissions are actually our emissions.  

    I'm hearing a lot of talk on both sides of the Pacific about manufacturing moving back to the US, so that energy consumption for manufacturered goods is headed back this direction.  And I think that's a good thing.

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  3. Have you ever been to China? Seen the chocolate colored water in the rivers? Breathed the viscous air? I have, plenty. There ain't no good news there.

    "Australia's carbon tax is faring well" Are you kidding me? Have you seen the price of 'carbon' lately? "Carbon" markets are collapsing and Austrailia is counting heavily on those same 'carbon' taxes to make revenue goals. They aren't going to make it.

    Time to step away from the keyboard and take a trip down reality lane here.

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  4. Further to (away from) Habilus, here in the US we used to have a general problem characterized by something called "Love Canal." We've moved to substantially repair the defect. Would restoring Love Canal to its former filthy state and returning to the general fecklessness it represented make no difference? Would that choice be equally "good news" as was correcting the problem of Love Canal? I think not. 

    So the China of today is not the China of tomorrow, if the Chinese choose to plan their future differently to how they run things today. They're doing so, apparently. Unless we believe the Chinese are uniquely unable to transcend their current problems it seems that China's decisions are indeed "good news."  

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    Moderator Response: {PW] In addition to your points, there was--was, being the operative word--the time when the Cuyahoga River caught *fire*, and we addressed that, and fixed the issue. Through regulation.
  5. Habilus:

    Finding themselves in such dire straits, environmentally speaking, is the sort of thing that might - just might - have inspired Chinese policymakers, entrepreneurs & established magnates, farmers and factory workers, and so on, to make the decisions being discussed here.

    Your assessment of the shortfall in carbon revenue in Australia also appears to entirely miss the point. If Australia is facing reduced carbon tax revenue, it is because Australians are reducing their carbon emissions. Last I checked, that, rather than making money, was the point of a price on carbon.

    So I'm not certain that it is Dana who needs to take a trip down "reality lane" here.

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  6. Habilus is more than mistaken about the purpose of the Carbon Tax.  No money from the carbon tax is intended for general revenue; the entire amount being used to fund compensation, reduction in emissions, and research into emissions reductions.  Further, the projected shortfall represents just 7.5% of expected revenues, and just 0.08% of Australian Government expenditure.

    Despite this, Habilus does his best chicken little impersonation.

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  7. Habilus...  I have been to China many times.  My wife is Chinese and I speak Cantonese.  It is a response to exactly what you're describing that the Chinese government is implementing a carbon tax, along with a long list of other regulations.

    I always find if fascnating how many people in the US think that regulations are the problem, when they only have to look toward China's development over the past 30 years to see what happens with a lack of enforced regulation.

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  8. The problem with China is that its actions speak louder than its words:  What is China doing?

    It is increasing coal imports from Mongolia.

    Opening new coal mines so as to increase national production.

    Continuing to build 350 new coal fired power stations.

    Burning over 47% of worlds coal production.

    It emits over 23% of the world’s annual CO2-e. and

    Lags UK in offshore wind power 10:1.

    Is this taking a leading role in solving climate change - or contributing significantly to its cause?  

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  9. Agnostic @8 - I think you're suffering from the same mistake as Habilus @3, which is looking at past and current conditions as opposed to the future plans discussed in this post.  Doug @4 makes the important point that until we started implementing serious environmental regulations in the USA (circa 1970), we also had major pollution problems.  That's where China is right now - at a turning point where pollution has become too bad to ignore, and they're now implementing important regulations to remedy the problem.

    Note your link to the 350 coal power plants are planned plants.  If the Chinese goverment decides not to proceed with those plans, they can scrap them.  It sounds to me like that's the plan.

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  10. Dana, thanks for the most objective and unbiased account of China's pollution and emmissions I've come across.  Good news indeed.  It's very easy for our western governments to put out propaganda presenting the Chinese as a scapegoat for their own inaction, conveniently forgetting that we had exactly the same problems when we were industrialising - and learned that the only solution to them is state regulation.  We also manage to forget that on a historical basis our emissions have been much higher.

    As Rob Honeycutt points out we have in a very real sense exported a lot of our industry and emissions to China.  It's almost a cliche to to warn about underestimating the Chinese, but I think their government will inevitably have to take into account the opinions of their very large, newly educated class. Just twenty years ago we coudn't have imagined their present achievements

    A few weeks ago when Al Gore was in Britain promoting his new book he said only the USA has the "moral authority" to lead the world in tackling climate change.  Given the strength of the US fossil fuel lobby, I think it's quite conceivable that in another twenty years we'll find that the Chinese have assumed this role.

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  11. China has been copying the past bad ways of the Western economies.
    It's a bit stupid to actually say that the US, Europe et al should continue along the lines of fossil fuels etc and then criticise China for having dirty rivers, underground coal fires, thousands of coal fired power stations etc.

    If you are criticising China, then you can't support the same unrestricted use of resources elsewhere.

    As always with political ideology, it throws out evidence in order to stay on the ideology track.

    China is a mess and it should never have gone down the route it has. We can not excuse it because there is no doubt that carbon emissions were much lower in China before it decided to 'compete' with the West. That doesn't justify communism either.

    The reality is that to cut carbon emissions, you can't purely rely on technology and assume that it will compensate for economic growth. People have to use less energy and materials, that is something that neither capitalists or socialsists are able to cope with, as such they don't have much of a future IMO.

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  12. Dana,

    Thanks for another good piece.

    You raise an issue that's been bothering me for some time.  Perhaps you can shed some light on it.

    "38% of the 2012 emissions reduction was due to natural gas replacing coal"

    Research from Cornell seems to show that NG from fracking is actually very dirty, and probably dirtier than even coal. (http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/April11/GasDrillingDirtier.html). 

    In view of the fact that our NG is increasingly coming from fracking, are our emissions truly decreasing as we replace coal, or is there a flaw in our accounting methods (i.e., just looking at power plant emissions as opposed to complete lifecycle impacts)?

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  13. Physicist-retired: note that the "38%" in the text is for CO2 emissions only, not total greenhouse gas emissions. The Cornell report sums greenhouse gas emissions, AFAIK. The crux is that fracking and other fossil fuel extraction activities are a source of methane, which is a strong greenhouse gas. If too many leaks occur during gas extraction, the fugitive emissions of methane can negate or even overwhelm the achieved savings from burning gas instead of coal.

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  14. A very informative post Dana.  There is a glimmer of cautious hope here.  These are small steps and governments need to do much more, but things seem to be moving. Thank goodness too, because the science is very clear on what we need to do here.

    This will place those (e.g., USA, Canada) who are advocating doing very little to reduce emissions because China is doing "nothing" in an awkward position.

    Will the USA and Canada now finally implement a price on carbon emissions, or will they double down?  I suspect that Harper (Canadian PM) will double down, but not if Obama moves first.  

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  15. Albatross@14

    While I would love to see Harper take something of a change in course from his tar-sands-development-at-all-costs approach, I very much doubt we can count on the current Canadian government to implement a price on carbon. In 2009, prior to his majority government, Harper used the appointed Senate to kill the elected House of Commons passed climate change bill, which included carbon pricing. This was the first occurrance of the Senate killing a House bill since the 30s, which kind of shows his resolve to ensure no price is implemented. If Canada's emissions are to fall, I think it will be a result of Keystone being killed, public opposition being just far too high to proceed with the Northern Gateway and other pipelines not being economically feasible.

    Good could be done on the provincial level though. BC has a carbon tax, Quebec is moving towards Cap-and-Trade, there is the possibility Ontario will do likewise so long as the Conservatives aren't elected, Manitoba has a modest price on coal and I've heard mullings that they're looking to increase it, the Maritime provinces are looking at further developing hydroelectric. So, while overarching ferderal support seems to be about nil under Harper, there is the possibility that certain conditions may lend themselves to a reduction in Canada's GHG emissions

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  16. Physicist @12 - unfortunately the methane leakage during natural gas drilling remains a pretty big question mark.  I doubt that it makes overall natural gas emissions exceed coal GHG emissions, but natural gas also probably isn't as low emissions as it gets credit for.  This is an area of ongoing research.

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  17. Thanks, Dana.

    If you see any follow-up research regarding methane leaks from fracked wells, I'd be very interested in seeing them.  The Cornell study was the only in-depth analysis I've read to date - and it certainly caught my attention:

    The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil
    when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years.

    Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.

    A very serious concern, in my opinion - and one that doesn't seem to be accounted for in our emissions estimates (yet).

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  18. If China does impose a carbon tax, both for domestic and imported fossil fuel, and returns this money equally to each of its citizens (Hansen solution) and taxes goods from countries which do not have a carbon tax, other countries will pretty much have to follow suit or be left at an economic disadvantage.  A tax on carbon is determined by legislation, not by the market as is cap and trade so it can be slowly ramped up year after year.  Long before renewable energy is equal in price to coal generated energy, capital will flee from fossil fuel, speeding up our transition to renewables and research into ways of coping with pulsating souces of energy.  China, with her command economy is the one country that could set this up rapidly and basically save our sorry selves from ourselves.

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  19. Physicist@12 Raymond Pierrehumbert, whose opinion I always pay attention to, called the  Howarth study "seriously flawed" (under comment #20). You can also find a more extended comment by Gavin Schmidt here

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  20. @Tom Curtis and Composer99, happy to draw your ad homenim.

    Regardless where the money was to have been spent, Australia bugeted a $24 billion income from the carbon tax over 4 years. The shortfall will have to come from somewhere. Maybe they can borrow it from China like everyone else.

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  21. Habilius...  And how much is the expected shortfall?  You're bandying about the $24B figure like that's the shortfall.  That's the budgeted revenue.

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  22. Further to my post @19, Pierrehumbert says his views are in line with those of Larry Cathles. Here's an article about the Cathles/Howarth argument. Also, here is the published paper. 

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  23. 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.

    I initially examined Hansard, which is the record for the Australian parliament, personal websites, interview transcripts and press releases looking for definitive statements by every current member of both houses of parliament that demonstrate their individual positions on the science underpinning climate change. Links to both pages can be found here. I also extended that to look more closely at Tony Abbott's shadow cabinet team and it doesn't look very good for any environmental policy should his party be successful in the federal election in September. That page is here.  That said, my understanding is that Abbott will find it very difficult to repeal the carbon tax given the effort big business, the traditional conservative support base, has put in to accommodate it in their business plans. Much work has also gone in to their long term future planning also. It will be too messy. Abbott and his team will spin it however they see fit to backflip on the promise to repeal, knowing the electorate has a short memory.

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  24. 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.

    I initially examined Hansard, which is the record for the Australian parliament, personal websites, interview transcripts and press releases looking for definitive statements by every current member of both houses of parliament that demonstrate their individual positions on the science underpinning climate change. Links to both pages can be found here. I also extended that to look more closely at Tony Abbott's shadow cabinet team and it doesn't look very good for any environmental policy should his party be successful in the federal election in September. That page is here.  That said, my understanding is that Abbott will find it very difficult to repeal the carbon tax given the effort big business, the traditional conservative support base, has put in to accommodate it in their business plans. Much work has also gone in to their long term future planning also. It will be too messy. Abbott and his team will spin it however they see fit to backflip on the promise to repeal, knowing the electorate has a short memory.

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  25. Habilus:

    I am fairly certain this is the third time today I have noted that someone has misunderstood the ad hominem fallacy. Tom Curtis & I were both rather pert with you, that is true. However, we also addressed the substance of your claim (insofar as there was any to begin with). We would have committed the fallacy only if our responses had solely been our concluding remarks.

    (Interestingly, I came across this essay while looking for a concise definition to use above which argues that there is no ad hominem fallacy.)

    I still don't see where the problem with Australia losing out on carbon ETS (to be accurate) revenue is, insofar as it results from Australian individuals, families, and businesses reducing their carbon usage more aggressively than the government projected. And as Tom Curtis notes, the Australian government diverts the ETS revenue into payments to Australians to offset cost increases from the scheme. So if the ETS generates less revenue than generated, I suppose that less money would be paid out - but this would balance out as reduced carbon usage by Austalian individuals, families and businesses means they are not affected as much by costs passed downstream by emitters.

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  26. Habilus: I have been to China extensively. In less than 6 years they built the largest High-Speed rail road network in the world. When China sets out to do something they do it, they don't just talk about it. Your comment makes me think the rest of your comments are just as pooly based. That the air is dirty is not a question, so it is a straw man argument on your part. Do you work for the pollution company interests?

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  27. Further to PluviAL, in the past half-dozen years China has equipped homes with 20GWE+ of domestic solar hot water, the equivalent of 10 of the largest nuclear plants crisply instantiated as facts on the ground. Here in the US we pretty much ignore this ridiculously easy to obtain energy, apparently preferring instead to dream and talk about a resurgence of nuclear power when fraction of the money required to realize our romance with atom splitting could actually solve problems for us immediately. Not to say we shouldn't split atoms, just that we frequently let imaginary perfection be the enemy of factual good enough.

    Indeed, China doesn't "just talk about it." 

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  28. China is taking climate change seriously

    That's good to know. May it long continue.

    Is the Australian reduction in carbon emissions from the electricity sector and energy demand legitimately able to be sheeted home to the Carbon Tax, or are there other factors in play? (Good news if it is due to the tax.)

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  29. JoeT,

    Your links provide some meaningful information, and are much appreciated. 

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  30. "Since development of the tar sands would cripple any possible efforts by Canada to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions"

    Why would the development of the tar sand cripple any possible efforts by Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or even be an obsticle. Will the development of the tar sands add even one car to the roads in Canada or prevent the placement of one solar panel on the roof. Unless the U. S. were to import just as much oil from OPEC nations as it does now, why would any additional greenhouse gas emissions be produced. To stop OPEC oil imports would mean less flaring in OPEC nations.

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  31. It’s good to hear some good news. It seems that every-where I look, I see the situation becoming more and more dire. It’s good to know that people in power ARE paying attention and are implementing policy changes.

    But I wonder if this is enough

    These issues are immediate and their consequences frightening. The timescale for drastic action is now. At the current rate of progress, I fear that we will fail.

    I hold on to hope.

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