Archive for December, 2011
Don’t make Durban the burial site of the Kyoto protocol – that was the call from the premier of the KwaZulu-Natal province as the United Nations summit opened in South Africa.
His desire not to wear this stigma is understandable, but it is hard to see why the 15-year-old treaty will get a new lease of life beyond its expiry date next December.
Many of the smaller “developing” countries have arrived at the Durban summit demanding a continuation of a one-sided arrangement where the OECD nations further commit themselves to binding cuts – and it isn’t going to happen.
The two biggest emitters, the United States and China, prefer the Copenhagen model – nations taking abatement action individually but not bound by a legal obligation.
The huge elephant in the summit room is the fact that “developing” nations now account for 58 per cent of global carbon emissions and that China is the biggest “polluter” of all the countries in the world.
The China Daily website reports this week that the Energy Research Institute (a government agency) in its most optimistic scenario sees Chinese emissions peaking in 2030 while other scenarios see 2035 to 2045.
One of the Chinese government’s key aims at the moment is to keep down coal consumption – seeking to hold it at 4.2 billion tonnes a year in 2015 versus 3.2 billion tonnes last year.
(Put in our context, the Chinese are trying to limit the immediate rise in their coal use to 20 times the amount of black coal we burn in New South Wales and Queensland today to make electricity.
(This puts the local hysteria about closing this power station or that “to help save the planet” or of getting fussed about rooftop solar power in a somewhat different light.
(It also provides interesting context for the claim by Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, who will be in Durban next week, in a 25 November speech that the decade ahead is a “window in which the world still has the opportunity to act decisively on climate change at reasonable cost – to arrest the 300 year old trend of emitting ever more carbon in to our atmosphere.”
(Combet talked up the potential for China to have a national emissions trading scheme as early as 2015 in his speech. He didn’t mention the growth in Chinese coal consumption.)
As the US-based Centre for Climate & Energy Solutions (previously the Pew Centre) says, the protocol is now “more of an impediment than a means to genuine progress.”
In 2012 its “achievement” will be a growth in emissions of 25 per cent globally since the Kyoto summit in 1997.
The treaty today covers action by countries emitting just 27 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Take out Japan, Canada and Russia, all of whom have said they will not be part of an extended Kyoto agreement, and that coverage will sink to 17 per cent.
By 2020, allowing for the growth in emissions of “developing” nations, this would be only 13 per cent.
The harsh truth about the Kyoto agreement is that it has not mattered since President “Dubya” Bush withdrew the United States from this attempt at global engineering and President Obama found it impossible to achieve US Congressional support for a carbon price regime. (Some would argue that it died in its crib when President Bill Clinton declined to take it to the US Senate for ratification in 1998 in the face of certain defeat.)
For all the renewed bluster and propaganda about weather and climate effects, the drivers in Durban, as in any global horse-trading situation, are only two: political and economic self-interest.
Even the Europeans, who have pushed the UN process the hardest before and since 1997 because it suited them politically and economically to do so, now have other things on top of their agenda. The economic crisis, as I saw it delicately put this week, has “diminished the European Union’s appetitite for more aggressive abatement action.”
Canada and Australia are good examples of the self-interest of governments of the day.
Canada, for domestic political reasons at the time, committed at Kyoto to cut its emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Today its emissions stand at least 17 per cent above the benchmark and the Harper Canadian government isn’t going to have a bar of adding to national economic pressures.
Canadian weather being what it is, the politics are more straightforward than here: Canadian households directly and indirectly contribute half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions – compared with about a third here.
While more efficient cars and greater attention to home insulation have helped Canadians to cut their household energy intensity 20 per cent in 20 years, a wealthier community has increased its household spending 25 per cent in the same time frame, offsetting any abatement gains.
As the leader of the equivalent of the Australian Labor Party discovered in 2008, asking Canadians to accept a lower standard of living to achieve Kyoto-pledged abatement is political suicide.
As well, a big part of Canadian self-interest today can be summed up in two words: oil sands.
If you think the brawl in Australia over coal seam gas is a big biff, take a look at the North American oil sands furore.
The environmentalists’ view is exemplified by the claim by guru James Hansen that, if the Canadian oil sands industry is allowed to reach its potential, it’s “game over” for the climate!
The emergence of new technology in the past decade and the relatively high oil prices (projected to go much higher over the next 10-20 years) make exploitation of the huge resource in Alberta a very significant strategic aspect of the Canadian economy.
And Canadians have the added huge advantage of the biggest oil consumer living “over the fence” plus a lot more customers potentially available across the Atlantic.
Companies have outlayed almost half a trillion dollars in pursuing resource development in Alberta – by comparison, investors engaged in seeking to development geothermal energy in Australia have work plans worth $500 million.
The oil sands reserves are valued at some $14 trillion.
Many times more than the Queensland LNG projects.
Trying telling the governments in Canberra and Brisbane that the Gladstone developments must not go ahead.
Canada, therefore, is not about to enchain itself in a new global treaty.
Australia under Kevin Rudd overturned the Howard approach and committed to the Kyoto treaty for political reasons and is now taking on a carbon price regime because the Gillard government needs to do so to cling to power.
(Australians, who have been told so fulsomely by Treasurer Wayne Swan that it will all be apples under the Brown/Gillard carbon policy, should now be looking at him floundering with economic management after months-old budget predictions have proved wrong and wondering how he and his modellers can be trusted with carbon arithmetic over decades?)
Combet takes with him to Durban a Gillard government aspiration to build on the foundation of the Cancun pledges “a truly comprehensive climate change regime based on the principle of wide global coverage and environmental effectiveness.”
Durban, he asserts, will be “one stepping stone along the path.”
Realistically, the Kwa-Zulu Natal’s premier’s fear is the more likely outcome.
However the outcomes may be dressed up in the final communique, like John Cleese’s parrot, the Kyoto treaty is on its way to joining the “bleeding choir invisible.”
POSTSCRIPT: The Durban summiteers have sorted out one thing already – where they will hold their next meeting.
It will be in Qatar, the world’s largest trader in LNG, which will benefit materially if the Greens and others have their way and our coal seam gas industry on the east coast is cut off at the knees.