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The World

Jul 20, 2012

A da xiang in the room: new emissions data

A fresh report on the world's greenhouse gas emissions shows that a fundamental overhaul of international climate negotiations is needed to restrain global warming.

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

There’s a dà xiàng in the room when it comes to addressing climate change.

Dà xiàng is mandarin for elephant. And if you want to get your head around the latest data on greenhouse gas emissions, you’ll need to look to China.

A report on global emissions released this week by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission should put paid once and for all to the fallacy that climate change can be addressed by rich countries taking the lead and “developing” countries following later on.

This is a core principle of global efforts to address climate change and has been since the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 20 years ago. The principle made sense then. It doesn’t now. The world has missed that boat, and nothing short of a fundamental overhaul of the principles and approaches of international climate negotiations is likely to achieve the UN’s agreed goal of restraining warming to two degrees.

Here’s why: the Dutch report, Trends in global CO2 emissions 2012, found China emitted 29% of global emissions in 2011 — making it the largest emitter by a significant margin. China’s national emissions rose by a staggering 9% in 2011 alone, having risen by 150% over the past decade.

China’s per capita emissions increased by 9% in 2011 and are now 7.2 tonnes of CO2 per person, which, the report notes, is “similar to the per capita emissions in the European Union”. China’s per capita emissions are now higher than France, Italy and Spain.

International climate negotiations are proceeding on the basis that “developed” countries should take the lead and accept binding targets to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol process, while “developing” countries (including China) can wait to submit to this process from 2020, when a new universal legal instrument is supposed to come into force.

This approach is equitable and ethically sound. It is also not feasible.

The Dutch report found that global emissions, which had dipped for a few years because of the GFC,  increased by 3% in 2011, reaching an “all-time high” of 34 billion tonnes of CO2. The report calculated that at this rate, the world would use up its “carbon budget” for the period 2000-2050 by 2032. In other words, global warming will not be restrained to two degrees if we keep this up. (The report’s data covers emissions from energy use and industries, but not forestry or forest fires.)

The distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries no longer reflects reality; looking at the figures, the world has to find a way to dramatically rein in China’s emissions, and pretty soon, to get back on track.

That’s the realpolitik. The ethics of the situation is different, and one in which Australia and the US are the villains — not China.

The report grants the perennial high-polluting Australia the dubious honour of having the highest per capita emissions.

Australia comes in at 19 tonnes of CO2 per person in 2011, and our per capita emissions are still rising (the figures exclude forestry emissions). By any measure Australia performs poorly. Our national emissions are the world’s 15th largest — which given that the world contains close to 200 countries, makes us a major player.

We beat the US on per capita emissions; the US comes in at 17.2 tonnes (those emissions — both national and per capita — are dropping slowly). It’s worth remembering that as the US was the world’s biggest polluter for a long time, its historical (as opposed to annual) share of emissions is proportionally very high.The UNFCCC approach of developed countries taking the lead on climate change has failed largely because the US refused to do so, by not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and not comprehensively addressing emissions at the national level.

By contrast, Erwin Jackson, deputy CEO of the Climate Institute, notes that “many emerging economies are doing more to tackle climate change, they have some of the world’s most ambitious policies”.

Jackson concedes that the division of the world into developed and developing countries “is a reflection of the reality of 20 years ago”, but thinks equity cannot be left behind in the debate, which translates to focusing more on “developed” country actions than pointing the finger at China.

China is working on laws to make its self-selected greenhouse targets (which aim to reduce emissions per unit of GDP) binding, is the global superpower on renewable energy, and is trialling regional emissions trading schemes. Some Chinese provinces have simply turned off the electricity to industrial areas at times, to meet greenhouse targets. Imagine the howls of protest if Julia Gillard tried that.

But while China’s actions are in some ways ambitious, they won’t reduce the country’s emissions for some time. They just dampen what would otherwise be truly extraordinary emissions growth.

Ethically, the only crime China is guilty of is trying to emulate the economic growth and level of material comfort of countries like the US (which has itself squibbed on climate change). The problem is that the atmosphere will struggle to cope with that from China’s 1.34 billion people.

Experts say that international efforts to address climate change are failing, and there is a dire shortage of fresh approaches and political goodwill to get them back on track. The Dutch report provides evidence of this failure.

Among the report’s doom and gloom is one method by which emissions can be reduced — but it’s an inconvenient truth. Countries and regions that suffer economic decline tend to see their emissions drop. In 2011, emissions fell from the US (2%), Japan (2%) and the EU (3%); that was “mainly due to weak economic conditions”, as well as mild winters and high oil prices. On the other hand, China’s 9% emissions rise was “mainly due to a continued high economic growth rate”.

The Australian government (and quite a few economists) like to talk about how it’s possible and desirable to decouple economic growth from emissions growth. That doesn’t appear to be happening yet.

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166 comments

166 thoughts on “A da xiang in the room: new emissions data

  1. Steve Grant

    The other elephant in the room is that much of China’s output occurs in the manufacture of goods consumed in Australia, the European Union, the United States and Japan. Perhaps there should also be a graph “Responsible for Emissions” which takes that into account.

  2. MJPC

    Thank you Cathy, interesting report on the science of the bleedingly obvious. The worlds economists will bleat on about continual growth which is just an impossibility when living on a world of both finite resources and finite environmental health.
    The latest Popular Science says it all when it states “There is no longer any question of preventing climate change, the atmosphere is already warming in response to Human generated greenhouse gas emissions”. It’s just a case of how hot will it become and what effects will that have on weather and climate conditions.
    I can recall a forum where Dr David Suzuki stated that that everything Economists predict rarely runs true (ie. predicting the GFC), whereas environmental predictions run true to prediction (ie pollution, environmental degradation, species extinction).
    I am not critical of the Aust Govt Carbon tax; one has to start somewhere but the world is going to have to join together and address the larger issues or it’s adios amigo’s for all our wasteful life styles.

  3. bobm

    So the Dutch report does not include Australia’s “forestry emissions”? That is a shame, since they are NEGATIVE:

  4. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Most other countries talk about their emission from the 1990 levels, i.e. a 20% reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.

    Both Liberal and ALP (Alternative Liberal Party), say they are committed to reducing Australia’s emissions by 5% from 2000 levels.

    A look at the graph above of Australia’s emissions quickly shows why Australia is being devious by using the 2000 figure.

  5. Mark Duffett

    In addition to the factors mentioned above, a component of the falls in emissions can be attributed to the ongoing process of deindustrialisation, at least in the EU (euractiv.com/climate-environment/eu-energy-chief-warms-offshore-o-news-513990). Most this capacity is effectively going to China, where it contributes correspondingly to emissions there, making stuff that is exported back to…Europe.

    It would also be instructive to examine which decarbonisation policies have been most successful, and the extent to which they can be emulated elsewhere. One such analysis (thebreakthrough.org/blog/2012/04/which_nations_have_reduced_car.shtml) concluded that “State-led investments in energy technology are the best way to reduce economic dependence on dirty fossil fuels”, at least in developed countries. The most successful: Sweden and France. And China is indeed adopting many of the same approaches. One of these is building significant numbers of atomic power plants, which the article strangely fails to mention.

  6. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    BOBM – There is no other rich country which hides behind land clearing.

    That in 1990 we were clearing huge amounts of Queensland means that our forestry emissions for that year were extremely high.

    It was a trick of Howard’s to get this taken into account at the last minute in the Kyoto agreements (this was the “Australia clause”). To Rudd’s shame, when Labor ratified Kyoto, Labor still used this trick to enable Australia to substantially INCREASE its emissions when most other signatories committed to reductions.

    Because Australia is playing such tricks in the international forums we have been a force against climate change action, and Australians should be ashamed of what our governments have done in our name.

  7. bobm

    MICHAEL WILBUR-HAM,

    I tried to link to a graph to explain myself but it didn’t load.

    What I was trying to point out is that forestry (ie wood production) and land clearing are two very different things. Forestry has been and will continue to be a net sequester of carbon over the long term. This is something many green leaning folks seem to have difficulty accepting. Look at climatechange dot gov dot au and search for forestry. It’s all there.

    Cheers,

  8. Microseris

    @ BOBM, how exactly does forestry sequester carbon for the long term (required) when a significant proportion of the timber cut goes to woodchips/paper/consumer goods (typically with a life span of 10 years)?

  9. Marty

    @Steve Grant

    I just received the daily mail and was going to log in to make exactly that point! While it’s great that Europe has managed to reduce its emissions through the use of tightened laws on power generation and transportation, the movement of industrial production to China has to have contributed greatly as well. As companies do this, in order to avoid the labour market and environmental legislation that make Western nations worth living in, we have essentially outsources our industrial emissions to China along with our manufacturing jobs. It’s unfair, therefore, to simply point to an increase in Chinese carbon emissions, even if we use the per capita metric, because the outcomes of the processes creating these emissions are consumed elsewhere. If there is going to be an accurate accounting, it would need to incorporate the consumption of people in each nation and the industrial processes required to meet that demand.

  10. mick j

    It isn’t all that difficult despite the reluctance of politicians to listen: Australia needs to levy a CARBON IMPORT TAX, levied only on those countries which refuse to clean up their act, including the third world. The tax is NOT an import tax as such because it will fall away once the nation in question makes a genuine move to improve its emissions.

    We all know that the cry will come up about tariff reprisals but this would not be a tariff. Governments also then protect Australian jobs from the higher cost which Australian manufacturers bear due to our compliance.

    Foreign nations would not like it but then how else do you get nations which are happy to exploit our conscience to make gains for themselves.