I was in Melbourne when the agreement between China and the USA was announced, and The Age headlined it on the front page as ‘Climate Changer’, which I took to be a short form of ‘Climate Game-Changer’. The ABC said the same sort of thing on its evening news telecast, but I was too busy to follow the story up. A week later, it has vanished from the media — and tastes like cold toast.
Nonetheless, the believers have no doubt, and have asked why Australia is not joining the two big powers. Some were incensed that Mr Abbott said that coal was a good thing for humanity when he opened a new coal mine in Queensland, and others have pictured our Prime Minister as ‘an international laughing stock’ for so saying. The only foreign source I could find that even used the phrase was The Independent in London, which said, shortly before the G20 meeting in Brisbane, that Tony Abbott’s government risks becoming an international laughing stock, thanks to its attempts to block discussion of climate change.
There’s no sign that anyone laughed, or were reported as doing so, and the phrase really means that the speaker believes that people in other countries who feel like the speaker would be scornful if they knew what Mr Abbott had done or not done, and that makes the speaker embarrassed, because he/she feels that they are laughing at the speaker. People are fond of using this phrase, but again, that tells us very little.
What exactly was the historic agreement about? Well, the two Presidents agreed that climate was important, and that emissions were important. China said its own emissions would peak by 2030, if not before, and then decline, while the US said it would reduce its own emissions by from 26 per cent to 28 per cent of its 2005 levels by 2025. I hope you know what the Americans are proposing to do, because it’s difficult for me to understand. In any case, President Obama has no chance whatever of getting any necessary legislation through the House and the Senate in the last two years of his term, so it’s not at all clear what meaning his promise contains.
As for China, the simplest reading of President Xi’s statement is that, all being well, China will have deal with its energy problem in a couple of decades or so; the air in China will be cleaner; and there will be some sort of equilibrium in demand and supply for power. But there is no indication at all in his statement that China will be doing anything in the short run. ‘Wait until 2030!’ will be his cry. Why anyone who is truly concerned about emissions thinks this is a good thing simply escapes me. Why should other countries do anything, if China is following this policy? China leads the world in emissions, and in a week has more effect on global emissions levels than anything we in Australia can accomplish in a year.
And that kind of puzzlement crept into the comments on a so-called ‘Fact Check’ in The Conversation, where the virtuous believers did their best to defend the view that China would and could build astonishing large numbers of solar and wind power plants, that its demand for coal would probably peak in the early 2020s, and that we don’t need to worry about emissions because China will be dealing with them with far-sighted and enforced planning (who needs democracy?).
Chinese data are not good, though they are getting better, and statements by energy companies, state utilities and state planning commissions need to be read with a degree of scepticism. It would be much better, I think, to monitor what actually happens, especially in watching Chinese demands for coal, uranium, oil and gas (yes, it will be building nuclear power plants too, apparently). That takes time.
Back to The Conversation. Critical commenters pointed out that no one was mentioning the nuclear initiative that would have to be part of the Chinese response. There is just no way that renewables can do the job, and indeed the Joint Announcement of the two leaders refers specifically to nuclear energy, as well as shale oil, and even coal. There is no emphasis on alternative energy.
One plaintive commenter said I don’t think this is a very fair-minded effort. There is no mention that China’s CO2 emissions will be a lot higher in 2030 than they are now and the quantum (in GW) of coal-fired power plant will be much higher then than now. That immediately suggests the authors are on an advoacy mission rather than a fact-checking exercise.
Amen. The whole story is a bit of mystery. China is not proposing to do anything in particular about emissions for the next fifteen years or so. It is building an economy quickly, and needs more and more energy to do this. That will require more power stations of various kinds. It has real pollution problem, not the so-called ‘carbon pollution’ one: the air over much of populated China is very dirty, and the people don’t like it. By 2030, the leaders hope, they will have improved that problem by closing old power stations and building new, less polluting, ones.
All that is good news, of a kind. But to picture it as some kind of major step forward in the battle to ‘control climate’ is just fatuous.