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Turbulent week for global climate policy leaves many questions

Posted on 19 November 2014 by Guest Author

They came, they saw, they cuddled koalas and world leaders then largely ignored the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s instructions to ignore the global, intergenerational and morally challenging kerfuffle over climate change.

All in all the last seven days have proven to be momentous for climate change policy - both at the Brisbane G20 summit in Queensland and elsewhere.

Suspicions were confirmed, deals were announced and positions were galvanized, but there are still major questions as the world tries to find a safe route to a new global deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

I’ve been doing a bit of unpicking. Here are the threads.

Abbott coal’s great defender

It’s hard to think of a sterner test of Tony Abbott’s resolve to be the coal industry’s great international defender as that which he faced in Brisbane.

In the run up to the meeting, the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, the United States and China, announced what many described as a “historic” agreement to kerb emissions (more on this in a bit).

As the host of the G20, Australia had already faced concerted pressure both behind the scenes and in front of them to make climate change a more central part of the meeting’s agenda.

When the US President Barack Obama finally arrived in Brisbane, he headed to the University of Queensland to deliver a speech where he called on other leaders to deliver a strong global agreement next year in Paris.

Obama also announced the US would be pledging $3billion to the Green Climate Fund as Japan announced it would give $1.5 billion. Even Abbott’s staunch ally, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, says he’ll probably commit cash. Abbott suggested he wouldn’t bother.

How would Abbott react to what seemed like this climate change ambush on home turf? Would he tone down his rhetoric from “coal is good for humanity” to something more subtle?

Nah. He told G20 leaders that he was “standing up for coal”.

In a post-G20 press conference, Abbott’s words were almost indistinguishable from the public relations campaigning of the world’s coal industry. Abbott said:

A fifth of the globe don’t have access to electricity. We’ve got to give them access to electricity and coal is going to be an important part of that for decades to come – coal is going to be an important part of that for decades to come.

Oh… while we’re talking about that press conference, according to Abbott the US-China deal still means that “80 per cent of China’s power needs in 2030 will be provided by coal”.

Part of the pact between the US and China states the Asian superpower will look to source at least 20 per cent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by the year 2030.

But subtracting 20 from 100 doesn’t leave you with coal. Anyone heard of this stuff called oil and gas?

Away from Abbott’s one track mind on energy, analysts have been pointing out for months that China’s coal use will likely peak in the next few years with some suggesting it has already topped out.

That US-China deal

China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after overtaking the world’s second largest emitter, the United States, about a decade ago.

One popular refrain for many years from developed countries during climate negotiations is that they won’t be signing any new deal until China comes on board.

So when the US and China announced just days before the G20 summit that they had signed a deal on emissions, the news came with phrases like “historic” and “game changer”.

This could be true, but there are still some pretty fundamental unknowns, especially when it comes China’s emissions in the future.

While the US has set a firm-ish target, China has said only that it will peak its emissions at 2030 or earlier.

But how high will they go and how quickly and how far will they fall after 2030?

Given the scale of China’s emissions (about 10 billion tonnes per year compared to the US at 5.2 billion tonnes) this is a key question.

This science paper in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests that in the six years from 2013 to 2019, the growth in China’s emissions represents the equivalent of adding to the planet an economy half the size of the United States.

One detailed analysis in the New York Times suggests that a previous look at China’s emissions shows the country was always going to hit peak emissions at about the 2030 mark – give or take five years either way.

The story also cites a study from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showing that under a scenario where China made “accelerated effort”, its emissions do indeed peak in 2030, but by 2050 the levels had still not fallen back to where they are now.

Other analysis is more optimistic, suggesting that China could actually peak well before 2030 while sustaining economic growth.

That said, the sheer scale of China’s renewables roll out is worth thinking about. A fact sheet issued by the White House explained:

China’s target to expand total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources to around 20 percent by 2030 is notable. It will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 – more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.

One early analysis from Climate Action Tracker warns that China’s pledge still takes the world “far above” a pathway that would give the world a decent chance of staying below 2C.

The analysis says China had already pledged a target of 15 per cent of energy coming from non-fossil energy sources by 2020. China’s new target might actually “represent a slow down” in the speed of the country’s move away from fossil fuel energy.

Still in coal business

Australia is the world’s second largest exporter of coal (only a few tonnes behind Indonesia) with Queensland the biggest contributor to the country’s status.

The state’s Premier Campbell Newman is blunt. “We are in the coal business,” he has said.

One of the world’s biggest untapped fossil fuel regions is Queensland’s Galilee Basin, where several mega-coal mine proposals are making their way through federal and state approvals.

The fact that coal miners want to ship this coal through the Great Barrier Reef is a bitter irony (or a continuing sick joke) given that scientists and authorities say that climate change is the biggest threat to the reef’s long-term future.

In November last year, the Queensland Government announced that “first movers” in the Galilee Basin would get a discount on any coal royalties they would pay to the state, as well as making environmental approvals easier.

Campaign groups have been putting concerted pressure on banks and anyone else that might consider loaning cash to help the projects to get off the ground.

Now, just a day after G20 leaders closed their summit meeting, the Queensland Government announced it is prepared to invest taxpayer money to help India-based coal miner Adani build a 190-kilometre railway line to move about 60 million tonnes of coal a year to the coast for export.

Exact amounts have not been disclosed, but some report the state’s Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney as saying the dollar amounts will be in the “hundreds of millions”. In a statement, Seeney said:

Our decision to help build the rail link for this project will get it happening more quickly and ensure its benefits start to flow to the people of Queensland.

Today we have signed the first of these agreements with Adani, but the State is open to negotiating similar agreements with all proposed Galilee Basin miners.

But worry not. The day before announcing the deal to help finance what would be the biggest coal mining project in Australian history, Campbell Newman said his government was “really solid on reef protection”.

Are you reassured?

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Comments 1 to 1:

  1. And now there's this:

     China To Cap Coal Use By 2020 To Meet Game-Changing Climate, Air Pollution Targets

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