Political change and climate change

Judging by the comments on my “derp and denialism” post, we seem to be mostly agreed on the proposition, amply demonstrated by economic studies, that the global economy could be decarbonized at a very modest cost in terms of foregone growth. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the commitments made so far are nowhere near enough to achieve this goal[^1], and that the reasons for this lie in the operation of political systems, most importantly in the US, China and India. This raises several questions

(a) Why have political systems failed to yield the responses we need
(b) Can climate stabilization be achieved without fundamental transformation of political systems
(c) If so, what transformation do we need
(d) If not, what kinds of more limited change do we need

In this context, it’s only really necessary to look at the US, China and India. The EU may drag its 27 pairs of feet a little (it is the EU, after all) but will certainly match anything the US does. And, if the US were fully committed to climate change, denialists elsewhere in the developed world, like Harper in Canada and Abbott in Australia, would have the ground cut from under them.

In the US (and other English-speaking countries), the primary obstacle is not the entrenched power of interests that would lose from climate stabilization such as fossil fuel companies. The big global energy companies, like Exxon and BP, are perfectly capable of shifting their focus from oil to gas and if the market gets large enough, to renewables. In any case, they are balanced by potential losers from climate change like the insurance and finance sectors. Rather, the problem is the climate change denial is a rightwing culture war issue, which has became (one of many) Republican shibboleths.

Sustained action against climate change requires that the Republican party either be marginalized or replaced by something quite different (though it would probably still be called the Republican party). That’s a big challenge, but not impossible. A two-term presidency for Hillary Clinton, even without full control of Congress, would probably be enough to get things done through a combination of regulation and international agreements, the model currently being pursued by Obama. And four losses in succession would probably be enough to force a shift within the Republican party.

The situation in China is more opaque (to me, at any rate) but also more promising. Having been the worst of the spoilers at Copenhagen, and suffered a fair bit of opprobrium as a result, the Chinese leadership now seems willing to take a constructive role. Moreover, the pollution crisis in Chinese cities has led to a dramatic shift in sentiment against coal. So, it seems likely that renewables will be given a fair chance, including effective pricing of coal externalities, which is all they need.

Finally, there’s India. For a long time, Indian rhetoric on the issue was dominated by Third World grievance politics: the rich countries had burned lots of coal to get rich, and India had the right to do the same. But that seems to be changing, in part because most of the losers from climate change are also in the Third World, and in part because India’s coal sector is a total mess, making renewables more attractive. The new PM, Modi (from the deeply unattractive BJP, but that’s another issue) seems strongly committed to renewables. The historical arguments have shifted to the more productive terrain of arguing about how to share an emissions budget constrained by a 2 degree/450 ppm target.

At some level, all this is academic, in the pejorative sense of the term. Either existing political structures, with the kinds of changes I’ve discussed above, will manage decarbonization of the economy, or they won’t. There’s no chance that any kind of fundamental transformation of the political systems of the US, India and China[^1] will take place within the next 10-15 years, which is the time in which the necessary decisions need to be made.

To sum up this post and the previous one: even though the global climate could be stabilized at a very modest cost, the political obstacles are formidable. It may not be possible to overcome them in time, but we have no alternative except to try.

[^1]: I’m a little less confident in making this judgement about China. The apparent solidity of a one-party state can crumble quite fast. But the initial result of such a collapse would almost certainly be chaotic, and the outcome unforeseeable.

[^1}; There used also to be a lot of concern over whether these commitments would be met. While a couple of countries, such as Japan and Canada, have reneged, and Australia seems likely to follow, most of the big players are meeting their targets quite easily, reflecting both the softness of the targets and the low cost of decarbonization.

126 thoughts on “Political change and climate change

  1. For thermal plant to achieve 40% electrical conversion efficiency will normally require steady output. For example a steam boiler plant taken temporarily offline (say for an hour) needs to keep burning fuel to maintain steam pressure and avoid thermal shock. That is why being forced into stop-start operation is inefficient and may not reduce emissions as much as hoped. That happens when the system is required by quota to give priority to a variable power source.

  2. Ivor, if Indonesia, China, Africa (can we make that Nigeria? It just seems odd to go country, country, continent.) want the same living standard as in the OECD, wouldn’t it make sense for them to use cheaper renewables rather than more expensive coal, gas, and oil? If you look at what is happening in China a massive build out of wind and solar power is occurring at the moment on account of the low cost of renewables.

  3. JQ, I agree with your assessment of the formidable obstacles nor do I accept the conspiratorial theses, either left or right for this inertia but have come to the view that is the model of modern capitalist economies dominated by laissez faire market belief systems which in turn derive from the fundamental inability of these systems to price and incorporate the costs of waste into economic and human activity which is our Achilles heel. The political opposition comes I fear from the in articulated but intuitively perceived understanding that if we cost waste and the problems of disposal then BAU becomes unsustainable and unprofitable in any meaningful sense until the whole system is rebuilt, politicians and capital owners are only interested in growth and profit and the combativeness of the struggle for the share of the proceeds.

    If you price carbon you price waste, if you price the destruction of warfare you cost the waste, if you require firms and the owners to be responsible for their human employees when discarded or damaged you price human waste. Once you price waste the free ride of modern societies and post renaissance capitalism is over. In the 1970’s western industrial societies alarmed at waste or pollution or environmental degradation began implementing a suite of policies and legislation aimed at reducing waste and it’s impacts, for the most part the rent seekers and holders of capital were successful in transferring these costs to the national or state balance sheets but the effect on the competitiveness (or profitability) was foreseeable, no amount of technological innovation or education or shifting to alternative activity (services) can hide the fact that the rent seekers and owners of capital moved the means of production and sourced their materials and labour in nations and countries who did not cost waste; human or physical. The collapse of countries and systems that countered this form of capitalist system, the electronic and jet transport developments finally overcame the physical barriers of distance and supercharged this transformation. States who did not own either the capital, capital markets, technology or had innovative capacity (educated and well trained citizens) were left as mere consumers of the output of those states who did not cost waste or mere repositories of resources to be exploited in time. In summary, decarbonisation is code for costing and incorporating the burden of dealing with waste into our BAU, this will be resisted to the bitter end and all such processes rolled back in the forlorn and misguided view we can ignore the laws of physics, chemistry and thermodynamics forever.

  4. @Ronald Brak

    You have to be careful with subjective statements such as:

    … a massive build out of wind and solar power is occurring …

    Why no evidence? no data? What is the capacity in MW?

    How does this build out compare to the growth in coal? China appears to have 363 proposed coal-fired power projects in the pipeline, with a total capacity of 557,938MW.

    See: tinyurl.com/ndpz5qc

    How does this fit in with the World Resources Institute’s statement that:

    According to WRI’s estimates, 1,199 new coal-fired plants, with a total installed capacity of 1,401,278 megawatts (MW), are being proposed globally. These projects are spread across 59 countries. China and India together account for 76 percent of the proposed new coal power capacities.

    New coal-fired plants have been proposed in 10 developing countries: Cambodia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Laos, Morocco, Namibia, Oman, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan. Currently, there is limited or no capacity for domestic coal production in any of these countries.

    Motivated by the growing Pacific market, Australia is proposing to increase new mine and new port capacity up to 900 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) — three times its current coal export capacity.

    see; http://www.wri.org/publication/global-coal-risk-assessment

    Every bit of carbon dragged out of the earth flows into the atmosphere at amuch greater rate than carbon is reabsorbed in natural sinks (which are becoming saturated).

  5. @Ivor

    Those are 2012 estimates, which predate the ban on coal near major cities. The main source, WRI has a more up-to-date, though still pessimistic, assessment on China here

    http://www.wri.org/blog/2013/10/can-china%E2%80%99s-air-pollution-action-plan-slow-down-new-coal-power-development

    Against that, the Chinese government is now talking about reaching peak thermal coal in the next few years

    http://reneweconomy.com.au/2014/the-move-to-peak-coal-in-china-by-2016-48548

  6. Slowing down growth in coal, or reaching a peak in a few years does not address CO2 emissions and does not suggest that this plume from China – cited by FFDAS [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyceJesID88 ] will reduce.

    I suppose the relevant question is whether China (and other populous states) can obtain OECD living standards for their populations without growth in oil, gas and coal.

    The alternative is the OECD lifestyles must change and some form of degrowth may have to be negotiated.

    I do not see that renewables that occupy significant areas of land provide any solution once the size of the problem is taken into account.

  7. Slowing down growth in coal, or reaching a peak in a few years does not address CO2 emissions

    I’m not following this. If China reaches a peak in a few years, and living standards keep improving then it appears that the question of

    whether China (and other populous states) can obtain OECD living standards for their populations without growth in oil, gas and coal

    has been answered in the affirmative, at least with respect to coal.

  8. @John Quiggin

    yes, you probably are not following.

    Adding in “if living standards keep improving” changes focus radically.

    Of course, IF-living-standards-keep-improving, then IF-coal-is-constant, then, surrounded by IF’s, a rather suspicious conclusion is reached – “affirmative” – any society reaches a higher standard without growth in coal.

    I struggle to see how this relates to the original question.

    If your look at your link – you will see that Chinese oil consumption IS NOT slowing.

    The rate of growth in oil consumption has slowed. None the less oil consumption is growing.

    A deeper understanding would also note that the supposed reason for this is that:

    as softer economic growth sliced into demand

    So this is likely just a business cycle fluctuation with little ongoing relevance to our real problem.

    It does however point to an automatic benefit from achieving lower growth – ie degrowth – which is my point.

  9. China’s ruling class, in order to fend off coal dependency in a hostile world, has decided to go fracking:

    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/09/china-us-fracking-shale-gas

    So, I wouldn’t get too excited, in terms of global ecology, about China turning away from coal. Fracked SCG, as most of you would already know, poisons water and leaks shite loads of methane which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than C02.

    This will go ahead. We’re fracked, as they say.

    I’m becoming much more interested in the technologies of the self that will encourage a will to live on, especially for the young, than I am in technocratic conversation about systems. What I mean by that, and this is personal because I have two children aged nineteen and twenty three, is how to inform them and arm them to survive a future which, given that they will live through the first waves of the great dying of species, may well be psychologically and emotionally unendurable.

    I’ve organized to take them for a long walk, soon, down to a river in a deep chasm coming off Barrington Tops, where platypus swim and the bird, mammal and plant life is rich beyond imagination. Right know, the orchids are in flower and the bush is stunning. This is part of a long program that I’ve had, as a father, to teach them to love life and diversity in life.

    I no longer accept that the unindustrialilized South has a moral right to burn carbon resources in order to ‘catch up’ with the industrialized North t the expense of an habitable planet.

    I think that the left’s long march through the institutions has failed the project of emancipation, freedom and life, which was always its project. It no longer knows how to fight except to protect superannuation, which is feeble.

    As for the non-left: fools rule and they will fuck the world in order to prove that they are right and they will hold that position down to the last gasp of oxygen because they are fools.

    There’s your future.

  10. There are signs that the rate of growth in fossil fuel use is slowing. However, since use is still growing absolutely, total CO2 emission are still rising. This is a great concern. We still haven’t reached the point of decline in fossil fuel use and thus decline in CO2 emissions. The key question is in what year will CO2 emissions peak and then decline steadily thereafter?

    The 2013 report from the EU Joint Research Centre “TRENDS IN GLOBAL CO2 EMISSIONS” states (reporting for 2012);

    “Actual global emissions increased by 1.4% over 2011, reaching a total of 34.5 billion tonnes in 2012. After a correction for the leap year 2012, this increase was reduced to only 1.1%, compared with an average annual increase of 2.9% since 2000. The CO2 emission trend mainly reflects energy-related human activities which, over the past decade, were determined by economic growth, particularly in emerging countries. In 2012, a ‘decoupling’ of the increase in CO2 emissions from global economic growth (in GDP) took place, which points to a
    shift towards less fossil-fuel intensive activities, more use of renewable energy and increased energy saving.”

    They go on to say;

    “The small increase in emissions in 2012 of 1.1% may be the first sign of a slowdown in the increase in global CO2 emissions, and ultimately of declining global emissions, if (a) China achieves its own target of a maximum level of energy consumption by 2015 and its shift to gas with a natural gas share of 10% by 2020; (b) the United States continues a shift its energy mix towards more gas and renewable energy; and (c) in the European Union, Member States agree on restoring the effectiveness of the EU Emissions Trading System to further reduce actual
    emissions.”

    I will let all that pass except for a comment on ‘decoupling’. I don’t think one can say it neatly commenced in 2012. The process of ‘decoupling’ economic production from fossil fuel use started earlier albeit vey slowly. It might be possible to substantially, if not entiely, decouple economic production from fossil fuel use. It will never prove possible to completely decouple economic production from energy use though new efficiencies and energy savings can make significant gains.

    The 2014 news for year 2013, from CBC News – Technology and Science, is that;

    “Global CO2 emissions break record ahead of UN Climate Summit:
    Top carbon emitters China, U.S. and India all show jumps in emissions, Canada 10th in world”

    The report goes on to note:

    “According to new scientific reports, the world pumped an estimated 36.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air last year by burning coal, oil and gas. That is 706 million tonnes, or 2.3 per cent more, than the previous year.

    “It’s in the wrong direction,” said Glen Peters, a Norwegian scientist who was part of the Global Carbon Project international team that tracks and calculates global emissions every year.

    Their results were published Sunday in three articles in the peer-reviewed journals Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change.”

    So, after only 1.1% growth in CO2 emissions in 2012, we have 2.3% growth in 2013. The graph has turned the wrong way again, namely up.

    I guess, the next five years will tell the tale on CO2 emission. If they still go up each year until 2020 (by any percentage each year no matter how small) then I think it would be very concerning and very likely imply warming above 2 degrees C. There is a consensus among scientists now IIRC that even 2 degrees C rise will significantly damaging to ecosystems and the economy.

    “The scientists forecast that emissions will continue to increase, adding that the world in about 30 years will warm by about 1.1 C from now. In 2009, world leaders called that level dangerous and pledged not to reach it.”

  11. I think it is likely anthropogenic emissions will peak before 2050, consistent with scenario RCP 2.6. China may be fair dinkum about reduced coal consumption, the US states may co-operate with new EPA rules and India cannot afford to import so much coal eg from Galilee Basin.

    Regional gas shortages such as that which looms for eastern Australia may lead to a partial comeback for coal. While that may displease the public the unknown is how much they will do about it. By 2018 or so it should be obvious to Blind Freddy that high net energy oil is in decline ie plenty of tar sands not much light sweet crude. Whether or not retail fuel prices rise it will put a damper on non-essential driving and flying.

    If that scenario pans out the average land temperature will increase by 2.3C according to the UK Met Office.
    http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate-change/policy-relevant/advance

  12. @John Quiggin

    It is probably best to view recent slowing in Chinese growth not as “degrowth” but as fluctuations due to (as in SMH link)-

    “The reduction in coal-fired capacity is due to the economic slowdown,” Li Junfeng, director general at government think-tank the National Center of Climate Change Strategy, told Reuters.

    “But the reduction is also a result of the crackdown on air pollution,” Li told Reuters.

    Context changes facts.

    I would want to see a statement that reduction in fossil is due to recognising a need to cut CO2 emissions.

  13. @Ronald Brak

    You do realise that the population of China is around 7 times this number?

    You probably need the details of these schemes to work out their relevance.

    Of course you also realise that the challenge consists of development in Indonesia, India, Africa as much as 200 million in China.

    The problem is that everyone has a right to have the ssame standard of living irrespective of where they live – and based on present technology – THIS CANNOT BE THE CURRENT OECD STANDARD.

  14. @Ronald Brak

    You do realise that the population of China is around 7 times this number?

    You probably need the details of these schemes to work out their relevance.

    Of course you also realise that the challenge consists of development in Indonesia, India, Africa as much as 200 million in China.

    The problem is that everyone has a right to have the same standard of living irrespective of where they live and based on present technology – THIS CANNOT BE THE CURRENT OECD STANDARD.

  15. @jungney

    It’s amusing and then annoying, the way that American talking heads treat the general public as if they have kindergarten level intellects. In the case of the American public this is probably right.

  16. @Ronald Brak

    It’s all very well talking about hopeful early signs. I think the cynics like me are saying we will believe something significant is being done about CO2 emissions when we see at least 5 consecutive years of CO2 emissions falling from the peak year.

    The tundra and sea bed out-gassing of methane and CO2 is very disturbing. It’s quite possible that we could reduce human CO2e emissions year on year and still see atmospheric CO2e levels continue rising. We might already have triggered a runaway event. I don’t mean a runaway event that will turn earth into another Venus with 462 degrees Celsius average surface temperatures. I do mean a runaway event which will severely disrupt our benign holocence climate and certainly end human civilization. For the earth climate to stabilise and recover naturally from this event it would take something on the order of tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years. Humanity would never see the next climate benignity which suited large fauna.

  17. @Ivor
    Ivor, you wrote, “I would want to see a statement that reduction in fossil is due to recognising a need to cut CO2 emissions.” Did my telling you about China’s Prefectural meet that want? If so, a warm hearted thanks from the very bottom of your soul would be appreciated.

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