Our climate needs China and the UN climate talks to deliver - now

The United States Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook 2013 makes grim reading: 56 per cent increase in the world’s energy consumption between 2010 and 2040, a projected growth of 2.5 per cent in renewables each year, and yet fossil fuels are still expected to supply 80 per cent of the world energy use in 2040.

On the basis of these predictions, reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would appear impossible. Even to hold current emissions would be a massive challenge: the consequences of the climate change crisis seem too remote for the public of the developed world to consider lifestyle sacrifices and the developing world will not commit political suicide and stop growth.

So on current trends, we have to work with the assumption that global energy-related CO2 emissions will increase from an estimated 31 billion tonnes in 2010 to 45 billion tonnes in 2040, with China accounting for 40 per cent of this growth in GHGs.

To put the anthropogenic CO2 emissions into a geological perspective, the 2010 quantities exceed total volcanic emissions from all sources by 135 times (Marty and Tolstikhin, 1998), while the predicted 2040 emissions can be considered equivalent to an almost 200 times increase in volcanic activity.

In addition to this energy outlook, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released an updated scientific analysis of the global climate situation.

What will not be disputed in the report is that a vast amount of carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere from fossil fuel power plants. It is logical then to expect that if we change the composition of the atmosphere with such a gas that affects the Earth’s heat retention there will be some impact.

Kyoto was a triumph for international diplomacy and action. Such a new international commitment is desperately needed.

The billions of tonnes of coal burned each year in major developing countries such as China not only further pollutes the atmosphere with more greenhouse gas emissions but also damages the lungs of millions of Chinese citizens due to fine particulates and pollutants.

Consequently, we will have to accept continued growth in industrialisation, fossil fuel subsidies and energy production and adapt to a degrading biosphere that will become increasingly hostile to our existence.

The magnitude of what has to be achieved sets the true value of carbon. The less we do to stop emissions, the more carbon’s value will rise. We will pay a carbon price eventually but it will be immensely larger than the price today.

Our ingenuity should help us to achieve a substantial degree of adaptation provided detrimental changes do not accelerate out of control. But that’s not enough.

Here’s what needs to happen at the UN climate talks and in China: At the UN climate talks, our leaders have a minimum duty to achieve a consensus on what will be done to slow down climate change.

They have to allow time to prepare a viable and fully financed international response scheme to address the negative impacts. This can no longer wait.

Without the active participation of the US and China, any resolution on climate change mitigation will be largely ineffective. Kyoto was a triumph for international diplomacy and action. Such a new international commitment is desperately needed.

New and robust market mechanisms such as a carbon price and a cap and trade scheme should be brought into play (at a minimum across all G20 countries) to direct massive resources on what has to be done.

Every possible means should be utilised to direct international finance and expertise at clean energy production and emission reductions.

China, single-handedly responsible for 40 per cent of the projected growth in emissions, now faces a degraded ecosystem and massive health care liabilities from its people suffering from pollution.

It is determined to reduce its reliance on coal and is pursuing various unconventional gas sources in an attempt to emulate successes in the US with Coal Bed Methane (CBM) and “shale gas”. However, in order to create momentum and scale, China urgently needs to decrease its fossil fuel subsidies (these are estimated to be a massive $300 billion per annum), expand its pipeline infrastructure and create transparent market conditions to attract investment, experienced developers and service companies.

There are also opportunities to capture and use more gas from coal mines to generate clean electricity but current subsidies are no replacement for the CDM incentives that until recently introduced advanced technologies and foreign investment to ensure safe and efficient exploitation of the resources.

With mining costs exceeding coal prices at many of the large state-owned mines, there is currently no thirst for investment in coal mine methane power generation at coal mines and large volumes of methane that could be used are flowing unchecked into the atmosphere.

The China pilot emission permit trading schemes must be seriously managed by China’s National Development and Reform Commission to mature and evolve into a mandatory national trading scheme that allows a proportion of offsets from emission reduction projects that generate clean power.

The government of China must learn to trust markets, especially the carbon market, and relax its guiding hand. If China can recognise that carbon must have a price, one way or another, then there is hope.

David P. Creedy is the managing director of Coal Mine Methane (CMM) and Ventilation Air Methane (VAM) of Sindicatum Sustainable Resources, a global sustainable resources company headquartered in Singapore. This article first appeared on Sindicatum.com


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