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Free riders

October 23rd, 2013

It’s widely assumed that small rich countries, like Australia, can choose to do nothing about climate change, without suffering any adverse consequences. Like a dozen or so other countries, we contribute about 2 per cent of total emissions. So, whether we reduce emissions or not won’t (at least directly) have a big impact on the climate change we experience, just as an individual decision to engage in (or refrain from) littering, won’t have much impact on the amount of litter they see.

But this analysis assumes that countries that do make a serious effort won’t impose any sanctions on those that don’t. Until recently, this was a reasonable assumption since the most prominent laggards were China and the US, both of which can do pretty much as they please in international matters. But China and the US are taking their commitments seriously now, and are taking some big steps to reduce emissions. That changes the calculation for a would-be free rider.

The Harper government in Canada is already discovering this. Harper is a (barely concealed) climate denialist, who has attacked climate science, and promoted the work of ‘sceptics’. Having repudiated Canada’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it interfered with Canada’s aspirations to be an ‘energy superpower’ Harper imagined he would have no trouble securing agreement for the Keystone Pipeline, which is supposed to carry oil from the hugely destructive Alberta Tar Sands projects to markets in the US.

Canada is in the inner core of US allies, historically distinguished by its devotion to being a global ‘good citizen’. Unsurprisingly, the Canadians had plenty of favors to call in at the US State Department, which duly reported that the project was environmentally benign and should be approved.

But then everything went wrong for Harper.

First, it turned out that State had been too keen to return Canadian favours, and had relied on a consulting firm tied to the oil indsustry Then the US environmental movement, motivated in part by the Canadian government’s obvious contempt for the goal of reducing carbon emissions, made stopping Keystone a signature issue.

As a result, the Obama Administration has repeatedly delayed approval. Given the vicissitudes of US politics, any prediction of the final outcome is unsafe. For example, the pipeline might be a chip to be traded in bargains between the Administration and the Republican party (which strongly supports approval). Nevertheless, recent signals suggest that, in the absence of some new development, the pipeline proposal will be rejected.

Having assumed he would have no problems securing US approval, Harper has been forced into the humiliating role of a supplicant. He’s offered to take action to reduce Canadian emissions in return for US approval. His initial offer was laughable, and was dismissed as such. He didn’t propose any action on emissions in general, only to impose some controls the tar sands extraction process. And then, unsurprisingly, it turned out that none of the necessary work had been done.

If the output of the tar sands project can’t be piped to the US, Plan B is to ship it to China. However, this would require new port facilities on the West Coast and these projects are also running into fierce opposition. There is still a good chance that this hugely destructive project can be stopped, or at least prevented from expanding.

The lessons for Australia are clear. Major powers like the US and China can act, or decide not to act, unilaterally. But in a world where the US and China have committed themselves to meeting demanding commitments small rich countries that choose to renege will face significant costs.

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  1. Mark
    October 23rd, 2013 at 18:40 | #1

    “However, this would require … and” appears to require additional words :-) Fixed now, thanks

  2. Tim Macknay
    October 23rd, 2013 at 19:11 | #2

    Well, adopting the role of a supplicant shouldn’t be too difficult for Tony Abbott, since it seems to be his default position when dealing with foreign heads of state.

  3. Donald Oats
    October 23rd, 2013 at 20:05 | #3

    …and Tony Abbott accuses UN official of talking through her hat on climate change.

    Apparently, because we have had bushfires before, Abbott can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

  4. Donald Oats
    October 23rd, 2013 at 20:13 | #4

    I’m sorry, but straight after commenting, I saw this news item, in which our PM, Tony Abbott, is quoted as saying:

    Prime Minister Tony Abbott today dismissed the comment, accusing the official of “talking through her hat”.

    He argued that “fire is a part of the Australian experience” and not linked to climate change.

    “Climate change is real, as I’ve often said, and we should take strong action against it, but these fires are certainly not a function of climate change – they’re just a function of life in Australia.”

    Interesting how Abbott knows that “…these fires are certainly not a function of climate change”. Now how the heck does he know for certain that he is right and the UN official is wrong? Does he have some special authority who tells him truth from falsehood? Can he prove there is absolutely no link between the severity and frequency of fires and AGW? Inquiring minds would like to know.

  5. kevin1
    October 23rd, 2013 at 20:24 | #5

    @Donald Oats

    Does he have some special authority who tells him truth from falsehood?

    yes, he does.

  6. Ikonoclast
    October 23rd, 2013 at 20:30 | #6

    “… in a world where the US and China have committed themselves to meeting demanding commitments small rich countries that choose to renege will face significant costs.”

    Erm , what demanding commitments have the USA and China committed to so far?

  7. rog
    October 23rd, 2013 at 20:31 | #7

    Unfortunately for Abbott the CSIRO disagree

    The combined frequencies of days with very high and extreme Forest Fire Danger Index ratings are likely to increase in south-east Australia by:
    4–25 per cent by 2020
    15–70 per cent by 2050.

    Link

  8. Jim Rose
    October 23rd, 2013 at 21:00 | #8

    Is the usa planning to reactivate that climate bill that obama would not fight for in 2010?

  9. rog
    October 23rd, 2013 at 21:18 | #9

    Graham Readfearn is all over it.

  10. October 23rd, 2013 at 21:56 | #10

    So Tony Abbott has moved from “climate change is crap” to “I believe in climate change, but am not going to admit that any bad things that happen are a result of climate change”.

    I’ve always despised the “we only emit 1% of the worlds CO2, so what we do doesn’t make any difference” argument.

    Try it at a budget meeting. “My department only uses 1% of our organisations budget, so you don’t have to look for savings here.” That’ll float like a stone.

  11. October 24th, 2013 at 01:08 | #11

    The atmosphere and the climate system are the common good of all. In our commitment to the fair go for all, we should recognize our ethical commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

    It seems to me that the free riders here are the fossil fuel companies. Tony Abbott may disband the Climate Commission to save money, but he is bound ethically to accept the science of Climate Change, in particular role of carbon dioxide as the thermostat process adjusting surface temperature.

    Corporations are deemed to be legal, and in some cases, natural persons, so they too should behave morally and ethically. The iconic moment for both Tony Abbott, and perhaps Stephen Harper as well, will be adding his signatures to the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

  12. Rob
    October 24th, 2013 at 03:55 | #12

    Do you think the pipeline would have been approved if Canada had stuck to its emissions targets?

  13. John Quiggin
    October 24th, 2013 at 04:38 | #13

    @Rob

    Probably, yes. Approval was widely expected, and had strong support within the US., It was only the decision of the environmental movement to make this a must-win issue that put it into doubt. If Canada could show that it had full domestic offsets, it would have been much harder to make the case that the pipeline represented a net addition to emissions.

  14. rog
    October 24th, 2013 at 05:36 | #14

    @John Brookes If the same principle was applied to military spending the ADF would be disbanded tomorrow.

    Australia’s involvement in Iraq was relatively puny yet deemed to be worthwhile.

  15. October 24th, 2013 at 06:37 | #15

    Free riders on the storm
    Free riders on the storm
    Around government they swarm
    Against them I now warn
    They’re out collecting rent
    And won’t stop until we’re spent
    Free riders on the storm

    There’s a killer in the air
    In his birth we all share
    Fly on a holiday
    For a nice steak pay
    Emit it from your ride
    And sweet Bangladeshis will die
    Killer in the air

    Girl ya gotta be informed
    Girl ya gotta be informed
    Take your keyboard in your hand
    Make them understand
    The world on you depends
    For many lives will end
    Gotta be informed

    Free riders on the storm
    Free riders on the storm
    Around government they swarm
    Against them now I warn
    They’re out collecting rent
    And won’t stop until we’re spent
    Free riders on the storm

  16. alfred venison
    October 24th, 2013 at 07:30 | #16

    i don’t mean to be snarkey but where did you hear this had failed? i read canadian news every day and i haven’t heard its failed. papers there are leading with senator calls harper a liar, in the senate. obama has a hundred thousand jobs in east texas riding on this and the rhetoric of energy security. harper has offered a joint monitoring program for the tar sands (as he’s dismantled any national monitoring capacity when he withdrew from kyoto) and i haven’t heard the americans response to that yet. there’s third alternative popular in some quarters in canada which is to ship it to ontario and refine it there. they cite already established thought long dormant refining capacity in ontario (sarnia) and a long established still viable pipeline from there to east coast usa markets. i don’t see how they can not develop the tar sands and maintain their lifestyle. really, what other product is there in canada? fur is over, wheat won’t do it. cattle are still banned by the americans. newsprint? blackberry? bombardier? this is long from over yet. -alfred venison

  17. Hermit
    October 24th, 2013 at 08:18 | #17

    I believe I sat on a chairlift next to Harper years ago before he became PM and the creep criticised my dress sense. It may not have been Harper but some blonde haired political staffer the same age.

    This is where the BCAs border carbon adjustments proposed by Dieter Helm of Oxford come into play. If Canada won’t practice carbon restraint but the US did there would be a hefty tariff on all tar sand liquids entering the US. Conversely if the tar sands went to China and escaped carbon penalty then a country like Australia would slap an equivalent tariff on Chinese goods. Joseph Stiglitz and others argue this may be the only way to stop carbon leakage.

    Everybody enthuses about China’s efforts to decarbonise with wind, solar, nuclear and hydro. Yairbut they are supposed to have 750 GW of coal generation much of it built after 2000 that will still be puffing away in 2050. Ditto the US rules on new coal; believe it when you see it since the fracked gas miracle is now on the wane.

  18. sunshine
    October 24th, 2013 at 08:41 | #18

    Phillip Adams LNL radio show last night covered the pipeline project. Apparently the Koch brothers stand to make 100 billion from it .Also the tar sands project is creating a massive inland sea of toxic water that is surrounded by cannons which fire every few seconds to prevent birds from landing near or on it as they would die if they did.

  19. Fran Barlow
    October 24th, 2013 at 08:54 | #19

    @Ronald Brak

    A nice idea Ronald, but the meter needs some work ;-)

  20. October 24th, 2013 at 09:17 | #20

    Meter, Fran? I wonder what that could mean? Just looking it up… Hmmm, I think I can file that along with “tone” and “good taste” among concepts I don’t need. And now it’s time for me to enjoy some Bieber.

  21. Donald Oats
    October 24th, 2013 at 09:27 | #21

    If instead of fighting a bushfire for a day, the PM Tony Abbott had spent it reading the scientific literature about the very real increasing risks to Australia with respect to bushfires, and spent time reading how the major worsening risk factor is due to CO2 and other GHG emissions, then Tone’s may have been in a position to appreciate why his carbon tax repeal is grossly negligent, and most clearly not in Australia’s long term interests. When Tone’s speaks, he should take to wearing a hat first :-)

    Back to work…

  22. Donald Oats
    October 24th, 2013 at 09:28 | #22

    Oops, Tones, not Tone’s. Send me back to primary school now.

  23. John Quiggin
    October 24th, 2013 at 10:15 | #23

    A useful link on the way Canadian supporters of the project are thinking

    Money quote

    “I would think that Canada has to demonstrate that it has serious and meaningful policies dealing with GHG because, like it or not, a lot of the opposition to the pipeline is generated by those who feel that Canada is not been carrying its weight dealing with emissions,””

  24. John Quiggin
    October 24th, 2013 at 10:16 | #24

    @15 Love it

  25. October 24th, 2013 at 10:26 | #25

    Thank you!

  26. Ikonoclast
    October 24th, 2013 at 11:13 | #26

    I have not seen any news that the USA and China are doing anything about CO2 emissions or plan to do anything about emissions. Have I missed a major new story?

  27. Hermit
    October 24th, 2013 at 12:33 | #27

    @Ikonoclast
    See theenergycollective dot com for a range of recent articles. Lots of gunners. China is burning about half the world’s coal and promises to cut back. When though? US replaced a lot of coal fired with fracked gas but that may revert. They’re not driving as much.

  28. Nick
    October 24th, 2013 at 13:01 | #28
  29. alfred venison
    October 24th, 2013 at 18:21 | #29

    here’s my unsolicited prediction: i think obama will approve the pipeline; he will make the canadians dance & produce a spreadsheet or two of figleaf, and then he’ll approve it, or democrats will crash & burn at the next election & the one after that, damned for destroying american jobs & compromising american security. see you next january. -a.v.

  30. Ikonoclast
    October 24th, 2013 at 18:52 | #30

    @Nick

    As I thought, lots of empty promises while actual emissions continue to rise. Resource shortages and economic collapse will drive emission reductions, nothing else. However, an intervening period of chaos, war and general conflagrations will very likely drive emissions even higher for a while.

  31. Fran Barlow
    October 24th, 2013 at 19:07 | #31

    For those interested in a quick primer on the HGH implications of the Alberta Tar sands project

    http://www.desmogblog.com/top-10-facts-canada-alberta-oil-sands-information

    Fully exploiting the tar sands could release more climate pollution than the USA and China combined — or EU plus China combined — have released in all their history. It could surpass all the oil ever burned by humanity.

    It’s unlikely, the article notes that all this would be commercially recoverable. It goes on to note:

    The Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) currently estimates just 17% would be ultimately recoverable although they say they haven’t completely surveyed the resource. This lower estimate would result in wells-to-wheels emissions of 180 GtCO2.

    That would imply an amount equal to all the emissions of China and the UK from 1850-2008.

  32. Nick
  33. Fran Barlow
    October 24th, 2013 at 21:27 | #33

    It seems that the US Tea Party may be fracturing over, of all things, renewable energy …

    http://www.thefifthestate.com.au/archives/56325/

  34. Ikonoclast
    October 25th, 2013 at 06:28 | #34

    (Reuters) – “China led a rise in global carbon dioxide emissions to a record high in 2012, more than offsetting falls in the United States and Europe, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Monday.

    Worldwide CO2 emissions rose by 1.4 percent to 31.6 billion tons, according to estimates from the Paris-based IEA.”

    Enough said.

  35. Nick
    October 25th, 2013 at 07:10 | #35

    “Enough said.”

    From the very same Reuters article:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/10/us-iea-emissions-idUSBRE95908S20130610

    China is the biggest emitter and made the largest contribution to the global rise, spewing out an additional 300 million tons. But the gain was one of the lowest China has seen in a decade, reflecting its efforts to adopt renewable sources and improve energy efficiency.

    In the United States, a switch from coal to gas in power generation helped reduce emissions by 200 million tons, bringing them back to the level of the mid-1990s.

    Even though the use of coal increased in some European countries last year due to low prices, emissions in Europe declined by 50 million tons because of the economic slowdown, growth in renewables, and emissions caps on industrial and power companies, the IEA said.

  36. Ikonoclast
    October 25th, 2013 at 10:12 | #36

    Too little, too late. We are finally slowing the increase (read those words “slowing the increase”) in GHG about three decades after we should have stopped and reversed growth in GHG emissions. It’s like having a burst capillary cauterized when you are bleeding from an artery.

    Sure, we should keep trying but one doubts we can save the situation now.

  37. Tim Macknay
    October 25th, 2013 at 11:26 | #37

    @Ikonoclast
    I can’t blame you for being pessimistic, but I’m glad you agree we should keep trying, Ikon.

  38. Tim Macknay
    October 25th, 2013 at 11:29 | #38

    @Fran Barlow
    It actually makes sense, since distributed renewable energy is consistent with Libertarian ideals – independent, individualistic and self reliant. I’ve often wondered why some Libertarians are so keen on nuclear energy, which is really the ultimate big-government technology.

  39. Ken Fabian
    October 25th, 2013 at 14:01 | #39

    Ikonoclast, there remains some small hope that pv prices will continue their descent and energy storage will follow suit; Germany intending to give storage the kind of leg up that it gave to solar could have a flow on impacts.

    Of course to push past the barriers it has to be cheaper than coal that is heavily subsidised by externalised health and climate costs, and probably coal that gets regulatory favours on top of that. And we should not forget that coal is currently enormously profitable. Seems like a 200% or more markup on minehead costs? It can remain viable at much lower prices than the ones the miners currently complain about.

  40. Fran Barlow
    October 25th, 2013 at 15:01 | #40

    @Tim Macknay

    It actually makes sense, since distributed renewable energy is consistent with Libertarian ideals

    True, and it also fits the authenticity of the local which is a key theme in populist agitation, but as I’m reluctant to put the concept “sense” anywhere near something the Tea Party (calling itself :”the Green Tea Party” would you believe?) claims, I feel a bit odd acknowledging that. Apparently, they’ve started trading barbs with another Koch-funded organisation — the AFP — which has been spreading — would you believe it? — disinformation about solar energy. You have to laugh or you’d cry.

  41. rog
    October 25th, 2013 at 15:06 | #41

    A trip down memory lane, perhaps to the tune of “the way we were”

    THE Prime Minister, John Howard, last night embraced a key climate change forecast, warning Australians to prepare for more extreme weather events such as the current bushfires.

    Visiting north-east Tasmania, he repeatedly made the point that the region was not normally associated with bushfires, and neither were they usually so common early in the summer.

    On his last stop in St Helens, Mr Howard was asked if he accepted the scientists’ predictions of more extreme weather events.

    “Let me put it this way,” he said. “I think the country should prepare for a continuation of what we are now experiencing … I think the likelihood of this going on is very strong.”

  42. Tim Macknay
    October 25th, 2013 at 15:47 | #42

    @Fran Barlow
    Well, if the Tea Party ends up turning on the Koch Brothers as well as the Republican Party, so much the better. It’s unlikely to make any real difference to US policy though, unless this new “Green Tea Party” faction actually controls some Republican Congressmen or women.

  43. Elmono
    October 25th, 2013 at 15:56 | #43

    The problem is that it is trupy hard to say that without global warming fire x or flood y would not have happened. It makes alot more sense to point out that climate change will increase floods and fires in the future

  44. Ian
    October 26th, 2013 at 11:09 | #44

    I suppose that even if the Obama regime does nothing about domestic emissions, they can still save some face by only dealing with other countries that do show some commitment. The irony of this position would be completely lost on the US of course, but it wouldn’t be the first time.

  45. Fran Barlow
    October 28th, 2013 at 12:13 | #45

    @Elmono

    And equally, to argue that since one can’t rule out global warming as a predisposing factor in sever weather events and their secondary consequences (fire, flood, drought) and we can closely connect such weather events with the antecedent conditions specified by the IPCC, we ought to behave, in the absence of persuasive reasons not to, as if every such event were a manifestation of global warming, since we will be right far more often than if we assume the reverse and will certainly benefit far more than if we don’t.

  46. alfred venison
    October 31st, 2013 at 20:09 | #46

    harper is in trouble.

    he appears to have threatened a conservative senator.

    the senator denies having deliberately rorted senate entitlements, as reported in the media over the last three months.

    the senator has made a statement in the senate this week to wit that harper personally, in the presence of the senator’s chief of staff, offered to write a cheque to pay the senator’s legal costs if he would take a fall & admit to rorting the entitlements.

    the senator further claimed in the senate this week that harper personally threatened him with disendorsement & consequent loss of health benefits (he has a heart condition) if he did not take the money & “admit” he rorted the entitlements.

    in short it appears the prime minister threatened a senator if he would not perjure himself.

    its being called “the 2013 senate expense scandal”. an ikos research poll conduced overnight our time found 75% of respondents, who were asked “how would you rate the overall seriousness”, rated it “very serious”, 12% “somewhat serious”, and 11% “not serious”.

    asked if its true, what should happen: 68% of respondents replied that harper should resign immediately vs 30% who replied he should serve out his term & face the electors.

    respondents by two to 1 rate the senator over harper as more believable, one in five think harper is more credible.

    harper’s conservative party of canada (cpc) has its national conference in calgary starting 31 october their time.

    http://www.ipolitics.ca/2013/10/29/the-senate-scandal-poll-its-adscam-redux/

  47. jrkrideau
    October 31st, 2013 at 23:19 | #47

    @Donald Oats
    @kevin1
    Very similar to the Harper Gov’t here in Canada. He and his cabinet know these things. One certainly does not have to consult those silly i>experts. Gut feeling (and a bit of bible reading) is much more reliable.

    You have my sympathy: The idiots are now running Australia too.

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