29 Nov 2011

Best chance for successful climate treaty: leadership by China or environmental emergency

Written by Jim Pierobon

As the next round of international negotiations about a possible climate change treaty — the 17th to be exact since the Kyoto Treaty was signed  in 1992 — get up to speed in Durban, South Africa, it’s becoming increasingly clear that an environmental emergency stands the best chance of compelling industrialized countries to act. That’s because nothing else will.

Self interest after all is the ultimate motivator. And no country is willing to stick its neck out without a similar amount of sacrifice and risk from other countries.

The 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa hopes to extend the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, parties may abandon it. CREDIT: GreenBusinessGuide.com

While developing countries proceed with climate change survival tactics,  industrialized nations continue to point fingers and play the “economic growth” card to avoid earnest negotiations. This week, what’s left of the original Kyoto Protocol from 1992 may effectively disintegrate.

There is notable incremental progress in, or within, certain countries. Australia is gearing up for a carbon tax in 2012 and shifts to to a cap and trade system in 2015. California has its sights set on a cap and trade program to begin in 2013. India has a coal tax. South Africa plans to place carbon caps on its top polluters. But there are also notable failures in the European Union and Canada, which plans to formally announce in Durban it is pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol due to expire next year.

I’d like to believe that China, in its march toward economic dominance, could forge a practical path forward at this annual Conference of the Parties (COP 17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  By teaming with India, South Africa, Australia and Brazil, together they could back the U.S. into a corner. The U.S. could be singled out on the world stage. Some U.S. policymakers might even be embarrassed.

But I digress.

So that leaves the atmosphere that all nations share with a hodgepodge of micro-maneuvers until a catastrophic buildup of epic proportions alters the political equation in the U.S.

By epic I mean more than the catastrophes the globe has weathered in recent years. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Several large hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere and typhoons in the Southern Hemisphere;
  • Increasingly severe floods and blizzards throughout the world;
  • Droughts from Texas to Africa;
  • Disappearing ice cap around the North Pole;
  • Rising ocean temperatures and sea levels;
  • Global average temperature rising to an irreversible level.

All of which are made more challenging to deal with by mankind’s reliance on fossil fuels and its inability to manage certain operations and risks of energy production; witness:

  • The March 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant explosions in Japan and resulting radioactive contamination
  • The April 2010 BP Macondo offshore oil well blowout in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico;
  • The rising number of coal mining accidents and fatalities in the U.S. and China and each nation’s unwillingness to more proactively regulate miners’ health and safety.

Before you rule out a proactive gesture by China, consider recent efforts of its environmental minister. In an unusually blunt warning earlier this year, Zhou Shengxian said China faces acute environmental and resource strains that threaten to choke growth unless the world’s second-biggest economy cleans up, according to Reuters.

The warning actually came in a published essay and has been making the rounds leading up to the Durban summit. Zhous also said his agency wants to make assessing projected greenhouse gas emissions a part of evaluating proposed development projects. If taken seriously, the Ministry of Environmental Protection he heads could gain more sway in climate change issues, an area dominated by Chinese agencies whose main interest is shoring up industrial growth.

“In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humanity and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” Zhou said in the essay, which was published in the China Environment News, the ministry’s official newspaper. “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the deterioration of the environment have become serious bottlenecks constraining economic and social development.”

“This is a crucial time for deciding policy,” said Yang Ailun, the head of climate and energy for Greenpeace China, an advocacy group, speaking of Zhou’s essay. “So he’s trying to bring more urgency to getting more teeth for his ministry by making people grasp the huge challenges.”

As it is, China has pledged to cut its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product at least 40 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels.

Another example of how seriously the Chinese press is taking climate change is a three-way debate on climate change November 28 in the USA editions of China Daily.

One of the authors, John E. Coulter, is a researcher based in Beijing collaborating with several universities. He concluded his opinion piece thusly: “Only when climate change is manifest in some disastrous tipping point will the countries agree to redress the problem. But that scenario will be more like Potsdam than Durban.”

Afterwards, Coulter explained to The Energy Fix via email: “I am afraid the US electorate has a mental set that precludes any global humility. They need a few more decades of decline to figure out where they are.”

All the more reason for someone to teach the U.S. a lesson that IT, and the industries poised to profit, could be teaching others.


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