Features Australia

The mitigation fantasy

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

President Macron marked the second anniversary of the Paris Agreement on climate change by convening a ‘One Planet Summit’ in Paris. Against the background of a recent flurry of statistics showing that global greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures have markedly risen, President Macron told the summit that the world ‘is losing the battle against climate change’ and that taking greater action to reduce global emissions in order to mitigate global warming was even more urgent. But the lesson to be learned from these statistics surely is of another sort. Recalling that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature in 1992, these statistics show that, far from securing any reductions, a quarter century of international climate action has failed to prevent emissions growing and temperatures rising. Global emissions are now in the order of double what they were in 1990, the year typically used as a baseline in arguments for the mitigation policy. Far from encouraging persistence with the mitigation policy, these statistics show that policy to have been an utter failure.

Proper interpretation of climate change law made this failure entirely predictable, indeed it was predicted. For that law has always given the developing countries explicit permission to emit as much as they wish in pursuit of economic growth and poverty relief. Article 4.7 of the Framework Convention provides that ‘The extent to which developing [countries] will effectively implement their [Convention] commitments… will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of [those countries]’. This position has been maintained in all subsequent climate change law, including the Paris Agreement.

The Article 4.7 permission to emit has, indeed, actually been strengthened by the Paris Agreement. Despite so much that is highly misleading that has been said about it, this agreement abandoned any attempt to set a binding target either for global emissions or even for the emissions of any country. Under the Paris process, countries must give notification of their climate policy intentions, but they are left to determine their policy independently, and by no means must that policy include reductions. Indeed, the UK is now unique in the world in having a – let us allow for purposes of argument – economy-wide domestic reductions target. What is more, Article 4.4 of the Paris Agreement confines any aspiration to make ‘absolute’ emissions reductions to the developed countries. Absolute reductions are reductions that actually reduce. The ‘mitigation efforts’ to which developing countries ‘are encouraged to move over time’ will not require actual reductions. They will rather involve reductions of the rate of growth in emissions, something that is entirely compatible with a growth in absolute emissions, and indeed the two normally run together.

The permission to emit given to the developing countries makes the mitigation policy impossible because China and India are classed amongst those countries, and over the time of the mitigation policy they have been elevating the living standards of their enormous but generally poor populations by overall extremely successful economic growth policies. These achievements have required a growth in emissions that has been the principal source of their global growth. The Paris Agreement is an exercise in the merest fantastic wish-fulfilment because China and India certainly will continue to make mitigation impossible. Let us focus on China, by far the world’s most important case, though India is a duplicate case in waiting, having at least the same size of problem of poverty relief but being at least a decade behind in its growth.

The basic, long-term statistics showing the enormous growth in emissions have been tempered by evidence of short-term fluctuations in the overall trend which has been seized on by those clutching at straws. But it is essential to look at the long-term. China has given notification of its intention to create a ‘moderately prosperous society’ by 2020 and a ‘prosperous’ society by the middle of the century, i.e. a standard of living comparable to western societies. Its population is currently 1.4 billion and is projected to be over 1.6 billion by 2050. At the moment, half a billion of that population live on US$5 per day. China therefore must execute the greatest plan for the alleviation of poverty in human history, and it will do so by executing the greatest plan for economic growth in human history.

Though a dreadfully misleading emphasis is often placed on the undoubtedly rapid projected growth in Chinese solar and wind renewables, these are and will remain a vanishingly small part of China’s generating capacity. This overwhelmingly is, and will continue to be, based on fossil generation and particularly on coal, which provides 65 per cent of total capacity. China now intends to execute the greatest plan for expansion of coal-fired generation in human history, far exceeding the growth that, despite requiring to be described in magnitudes one normally expects to see only in astronomy, has already taken place. China already consumes half of the entire world’s coal and plans massive further growth. This is the fundamental issue for climate policy in the first half of the 21st century.

In light of this it is simply absurd to persist with mitigation policy. It does not matter what the rest of the world will do. Chinese growth will continue to make global emissions reductions impossible. China’s share of global emissions is now over 30 per cent and growing. For the UK to persist with the enormously expensive pursuit of its reductions target is flatly irrational. The UK is responsible for less than 2 per cent of global emissions. It’s as if the UK were trying to empty an overflowing bath with a spoon whilst China is filling it with a bucket.

Australian climate change policy is even more futile as Australia is responsible for an even smaller percentage of global emissions. But futility is not the most objectionable feature of Australian policy. Australia’s prosperity is in large part based on its being one of the world’s two predominant coal exporters, making coal the second largest source of its export earnings. That prosperity in large part rests, then, on contributing to the situation that has made and continues to make the mitigation policy impossible. But emissions from Australia’s exported coal do not feature in Australia’s own carbon account. In this way, Australia’s domestic reductions policy adds a pronounced element of hypocrisy to the exercise in futility that is global emissions reduction in pursuit of mitigation of climate change.

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