Global Warning


Haze in Kuala Lumpur. Photograph by Servus

From London Review of Books:

The question of how to prevent climate change – we’re way past that point now – has morphed into the question of how to slow it down. There’s no shortage of theoretical answers about the best way to pump fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or suck more of them out, or lower the temperature by other means. (Another week, another book about climate change: the mood optative, the structure evangelical; threats of doom followed by promises of salvation, punctuated by warnings against false prophets.) And yet carbon emissions, temperatures, sea level and the frequency of extreme weather events just keep on going up. Which leads to another, perhaps even more urgent question: if climate change is not only inevitable but already underway, how are we to live with it? The shift in emphasis towards adaptation will be reflected in the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, due next year.

The aim of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, negotiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, was to ‘stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. So much for that. Twenty years on, after many more rounds of inconclusive talks, declarations of good intentions and accusations of bad faith, the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol has expired, with next to nothing to show for it, despite its excessively modest demands. Of the world’s eight biggest national emitters of carbon dioxide, which between them account for more than 66 per cent of global emissions, only Germany (2.4 per cent) has agreed to legally binding reductions in the second commitment period (2013-20). Canada (1.7 per cent) has withdrawn from the protocol; the United States (16 per cent) never ratified it; China (29 per cent), India (5.9 per cent), Russia (5.4 per cent), Japan (3.7 per cent) and South Korea (1.8 per cent) are still signatories but don’t have binding targets. Even the apparent successes of the first commitment period turn out to be not only modest but illusory: as Dieter Helm points out in The Carbon Crunch, Western Europe’s 10 per cent reduction in emissions since 1990 is largely attributable to a decline in manufacturing. A lot of the energy generated in China’s coal-fired power stations, which burn nearly as much of the black stuff as the rest of the world put together, is used to manufacture things for export to the West. We haven’t really cut our emissions; we’ve just outsourced them.

China is now pumping four times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it was thirty years ago. There is a widely held view that if only China would stop burning coal, everything would be more or less OK (it’s almost the only thing Helm and Clive Hamilton agree on). The government in Beijing said in February that China’s coal burning will peak in the next two years. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Nicholas Stern, who wrote a report on the economics of climate change for the British government in 2007, reckons the world would do well to take China at its word. ‘Smart investors can already see that most fossil fuel reserves are essentially unburnable,’ he wrote in the foreword to a recent report by the Carbon Tracker initiative and the LSE’s Grantham Institute, if we are ‘to avoid global warming of more than 2°C’. The report imagines that emissions targets will somehow be met, which means that up to 80 per cent of the vast quantities of fossil fuel reserves held as assets by publicly listed companies will lose all their value, and the huge sums currently being expended on finding new reserves will all be wasted: result, financial meltdown (again). It isn’t hard, however, to turn the argument on its head: there’s too much money at stake for those reserves not to be burned, so global warming of only 2°C is a pipedream. Either way, Beijing is apparently pouring money into renewable energy (hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal), as well as setting up an emissions trading scheme like the one the EU introduced in 2005.

The idea behind an ETS is that power stations and factories are allocated a greenhouse gas emissions quota. If they emit less than their quota, they can sell the difference to a factory or power station that wants to emit more. A report in Nature Climate Change last autumn cautiously concluded that ‘armed with powerful state machinery, China may be able to avoid some of the earlier failures of the EU ETS.’ The European failures include handing out too many permits and giving them away rather than making companies pay for them. In April, the European Parliament voted against temporarily reducing the allowances (a reduction might have stimulated the flagging market): the economic slump means there’s been very little demand for excess pollution rights. After the vote the carbon price fell even further. ‘Some environmentalists,’ the Economist said, ‘fear that the whole edifice of European climate policy could start to crumble.’ Others are hoping it will, so that something that works may be put in its place.

“How can we live with it?”, Thomas Jones, London Review of Books