The awkward squad

Looking back, the G20 meeting in Brisbane marked a historic turning point in global climate policy. Before G20, the big problem had been the unwillingness of any of the big emitters (US, China and India) to make the first move. The joint statement by Obama and Xi Jinping broke the logjam, with the result that India moved away from its longstanding position that poor countries should have the opportunity to repeat the mistakes of the past before dealing with the problems of the future. This shift was reflected in the successful outcome in Paris, and with the arrival of Peak Coal in both the US and China. India is still expanding its use of coal, but renewables are growing much faster, and imports are already declining.

With all the big players on board, the immediate problem in climate change policy is what might be called the awkward squad – a group of second- and third-rank countries that are, for one reason or another, trying to push ahead with fossil fuels. These include Poland, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Vietnam and, of course, Australia. Until the recent election, the Harper government in Canada was part of the awkward squad and a comfortable ally for Abbott and the LNP denialists. But Harper’s defeat appears to have provoked a broader rethinking with even the Conservatives moving to a pro-planet position.

As the awkward squad shrinks (Vietnam is already showing signs of rethinking) the remaining members are going to find their position in the international community less and less comfortable. That is, of course, unless the Republicans win the US Presidential election. In that case, the whole world will have a lot to worry about.

65 thoughts on “The awkward squad

  1. @Ivor
    Ivor, this is the last comment I’m going to make on that particular point. Everyone who is vaguely numerate will consider that your interpretation of the IMF figures in your comment at #40 is mistaken. If you can’t tell the difference between the rate of change of a variable, and the value of the variable, you just can’t be taken seriously.

    I also frankly just don’t understand your insistence that it is impossible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without degrowth. It’s not as if it’s an ideological requirement of Marxism, or something. But no matter. no doubt you’ll make some sort of snippy riposte, or an attempt at one. Knock yourself out. 🙂

  2. @Tim Macknay

    It has been explained to you in very simple terms.

    You do not have to have negative rates to have declines.

    It is amazing that denialists have to resort to such diversions.

  3. @Tim Macknay

    Yes, it’s a multifaceted question. I will see if I can break it up into its component questions. Each question is important in its own right and will probably have complex relations to each other question.

    (1) Are there limits to growth?
    (2) Are there limits to the rate of growth?
    (3) Are there limits to quantitative growth?
    (4) Are there limits to qualitative growth?
    (5) How near do limits have to be, to be of realistic concern?

    We probably have to work backwards.

    (5) How near do limits have to be, to be of realistic concern?

    I am guessing most adults would say that the limits have to be near enough to affect us, our children or our grandchildren. This is a supportable position I think in a couple of ways. It is difficult for people to care for very abstract or distant probabilities. Also, beyond that point too many imponderables could occur both in terms of natural disasters and in terms of human progress (or regress). So, we can only assume an understandable or broadly predictable course of human society events about this far, say about 100 years. (Clearly we already know to a high degree of certainty that sea-level rise already in train is likely to run for 1,000s of years.)

    I would say we can only productively worry about and attack the foreseeable problems of the next hundred years, especially in terms of limits.

    (4) Are there limits to qualitative growth?

    In the time span nominated (100 years), it would be very hard to argue against qualitative economic growth continuing, at least sans other limits interposing first. It seems likely science and technology can keep advancing for the next 100 years bringing more qualitative value which can be measured economically.

    (3) Are there limits to quantitative growth?

    Yes, I think it is reasonable to say there are and they are closer than 100 years hence. There is a pretty broad consensus that population growth needs to plateau and might well plateau about 2050 even without disaster or collapse. The same may be said of physical infrastructure. We cannot pave over the entire land portion of the biosphere (that is clear) and neither would we need to if world population stabilised at about 10 billion.

    (2) Are there limits to the rate of growth?

    I guess the more accurate expression of this question is to ask if there are lower limits to the rate of growth in technologically and demographically mature economies. The answer seems to be a pretty clear “yes”. The current limit seems to be less the 3%. Improving technology with a “stasis” or steady state demography might only deliver 1% or 2% economic growth and this is sans environmental limits (and overshoot) and sans internal problems of the economic system. Piketty’s now famous equation becomes important here. Imagine the effects of return on capital being at 4% or 5% in a 1% growth economic system (where workers get none of the income growth anyway). IMO that will get very ugly very quickly.

    (1) Are there near limits to growth?

    This is the big question affected by all of the above. The real danger is overshoot. If we have overshot sustainability thresholds already then we are in heaps of trouble soon. We just don’t quite know it yet. Time will tell. I will be surprised if we don’t have a very good idea by 2030 of how all this will go down. By 2030 we ought to know either that we are screwed or that we are going to squeak through somehow. Then again, I might be biased to thinking I will get a definitive answer before I die. We always seem to expect some kind of definitive existential answer before personal death. It’s such a self-centered bias of course.

  4. Perhaps Ivor is saying there is a claimed decline in the rate of growth of fossil fuel emissions but not yet an observable decline in rate of growth of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. We just need to be clear that we are talking about declines in growth rates and not declines in total quantities (yet).

    I think it is quite possible other CO2 feedbacks have started which are counter-balancing reduction in growth rates of fossil fuel emissions. Bush fires, peat fires, coal seam fires, vegetation decomposition and methane releases are very likely all increasing now given the greater heat (and habitat destruction around the biosphere. Thus we can reduce fossil fuel use (as other decrease in rate of growth or absolute decrease) and still see atmospheric CO2 levels increase in a basically undiminished manner.

  5. Correction.

    Thus we can moderate fossil fuel use (as either decrease in rate of growth or as absolute decrease) and still see atmospheric CO2 levels increase in a basically undiminished manner.

  6. @Ikonoclast
    Ivor didn’t mention atmospheric CO2 concentrations. In any case, obviously there will be significant time lag between the beginning of a decline in annual greenhouse emissions and a decline in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The annual CO2 emission rate has to drop below the annual environmental absorption rate before atmospheric concentrations stop increasing, and it is still well above it at present. People who cite the current Keeling curve data as evidence to dispute the claim that global emissions have stopped increasing just demonstrate that they don’t really understand the dynamics of emissions and atmospheric CO2 levels.

  7. Ivor, you’re incorrigibly wrong on this point, as well as being rude. Nothing more from you on this, please.

  8. Ivor, obviously my waistline must be collapsing, but my dietician insists that I’m still gaining weight. In fact, she has directly compared my weight to the world economy on account of how she says it is still growing, it just isn’t growing as fast as it was.

    She says that since I started with a weight of 95 pounds at the start of 2010 each extra pound represents about a 1% increase in weight. So I increased by 5.4% in 2010, 4.2% in 2011, 3.5% in 2013, 3.3% in 2014, and 3.1% in 2015. Just like the world economy.

    According to her I gained a total of 19.5 pounds in that period, which she says is a 21% increase since the start of 2010. And 21% is the amount the world economy grew in that period.

    But I really don’t understand what my dietician is going on about. How can I have increased in weight by 21% since the start of 2010 if I have been consistently gaining less weight each year? I guess she’s just not good with numbers.

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