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China emissions cap proposal hailed as climate breakthrough

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China, the world’s biggest polluter, is proposing to set a cap on greenhouse gas emissions as early as 2016 in a move that is being hailed as a potentially transformative step in the fight against climate change.

According to news reports from China, the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has proposed setting absolute caps that would divorce the growth on emissions from growth in the economy, and will also set a peak in its overall emissions in 2025, five years earlier than planned.

China has already pledged to cut its emissions intensity – the amount of Co2 it emits per economic unit – by up to 45 per cent by 2020. The significance of an absolute cap is that it promises to reign in emissions even if the economy grows faster than expected.

Furthermore, Point Carbon reports, at a recent NDRC meeting, its vice director Xie Zhenhua said China should set long-term emission targets for 2030 and 2050 in a bid to decarbonise its economy. China, like Australia is heavily dependent on carbon-intensive coal to generate electricity – just over 82 per cent. But it has also proposed a cap on coal consumption of 4 billion tonnes.

Lord Nicholas Stern, the chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, described it as “exciting news”, and said it should encourage all countries, the US in particular, to take stronger action.

“And it improves the prospects for a strong international treaty being agreed at the United Nations climate change summit in 2015,” he told The Independent in the UK.

Of course, the move has major implications for Australia, both in its policy development under a Coalition government, and for the hopes of mining magnates such as Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer to dig up large tracts of central Queensland in the hoping of exporting that coal to China.

As we reported on Tuesday, and previously, the Coalition is basing its plan to repeal the carbon price on the principal that China and other big polluters are doing little to address emissions.

Its climate change spokesman Greg Hunt is still peddling nonsense that China plans to lift coal consumption to 7 billion tonnes, and suggests that Tony Abbott, armed with a fig leaf of a policy that includes its $300 million emissions reduction fund and a 15,000 strong, litter collecting “Green Army”, can somehow encourage China and the US to intensify their efforts.

Such a scenario is laughable given that US moves to impose severe restrictions on coal emissions and China itself moves to a carbon trading mechanism, and imposes its own restrictions on big emitters.

Indeed, many argue that Australia should already be lifting its emissions reduction target. Ross Garnaut said last week it should be 17 per cent, instead of the current agreed target of 5 per cent. The problem with the Coalition’s Direct Action is that it is simply not scalable to meet such an effort.

The implications for Australian business in abandoning carbon pricing as its biggest trading partner embraces its own are enormous. And so is the move to limit coal production. Deutsche Bank, for instance, estimates that China will cease to be an importer of coal within a few years – reducing a major source of demand for Australian coal and causing a slump in international thermal coal prices that will make even these new investment uneconomic. Over half of Australia’s thermal coal mines are already losing money, according to a recent survey.

The UK’s Climate and Energy Change Secretary Ed Davey told The Independent that China’s changing attitude to climate change made him increasingly confident that a global deal on climate action can be reached in 2015.

“At the end of last year the Chinese leadership changed and started talking about creating an ‘ecological civilisation’. This doesn’t mean they have signed up to every bit of the climate change talks, but it means they recognise that their economic model has to take account of pollution and the environment and that damage that it’s doing to people’s health,” Mr Davey said.

“I’m really much more confident than many people about our ability to get an ambitious climate change deal done in 2015. Obama in his second term clearly wants to act on this and there has been a fantastic and dramatic change in America’s position. Taken together with China’s change, the tectonic plates of global climate change negotiations are really shifting,” Mr Davey added.

Interestingly, Davey said he wants the UK to take a leading part in the global climate change discussions as part of the European negotiating block. However, he said he was concerned that the rise of the climate sceptic Ukip party could drag members of the Tory right in that direction and damage Britain’s credibility in debate on global warming.

The same concerns could be said of the Australian Coalition, given that it is led by a man who owed his elevation to the conservative right that sought to prevent the introduction of a carbon price in 2009. This remains its policy position.

Erwin Jackson, the deputy CEO of the Climate Institute said it was clear that the timeline for the implementation of the Coalition’s promised repeal of the carbon price means it would be occuring just as China and South Korea are introducing their own emissions trading schemes, and an international agreement was being forged by the deadline of 2015.

He says there will be intense scrutiny on Australia which, unlike its decision to back out of Kyoto under the Howard government, would find itself without any powerful allies if it stood in the way of international progress.

“It is difficult to imagine that Australia could stand on the sidelines,” Jackson told RenewEconomy. “China’s emissions super tanker is starting to turn. So is Australia’s, but the reason China will continue to be successful is because that they can give investors confidence that they are serious about driving low carbon development. The lessons for developed countries like Australia is that we risk being left in its wake, and washed up against the rocks if we are not careful.”

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  • Sid Abma

    The energy of choice for these countries and countries around the world is Natural Gas. Natural gas can be consumed to near 100% Energy Efficiency.
    Combusted it is HOT, but with the technology of Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery the heat in the exhaust can be captured and then utilized back in the building or facility, or used by a neighboring facility.
    Then being vented into the atmosphere will be COOL exhaust.

    Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced utility bills = Profit
    Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced global warming
    Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced CO2 emissions
    Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Water conservation

    It does not matter if it is Japan or China or Australia or India or Africa or Europe or America, if Climate Change is going to be challenged and CO2 emissions reduced, Increasing Natural Gas Energy Efficiency is going to have to be embraced by the World.

    • thin_king

      Cutting and pasting the same nonsense over and over on different posts doesn’t make it any truer. It just annoys regular readers. Try making the same (highly disputable) points in different words if you want people to take you remotely seriously.

    • Ronald Brak

      In Sydney rooftop solar is being installed at an average of $2.33 a watt before Small-scale Technology Certificates reduce the price. Rooftop solar is being installed in Germany for under $2 a watt and the UK recently installed utility scale solar for a pound a watt. This is very bad for natural gas. While we’re not about to suddenly stop using it, solar will eliminate a lot of its use during the day. And thank goodness too, that stuff is 75% carbon by weight and is worse than carbon dioxide if it leaks into the atmosphere. Not nearly as bad as coal though.

  • http://energyinachangingclimate.info/ Martin Nicholson

    The Chinese have an advantage over much of the world in that they recognise that to quickly reduce coal emissions they need to replace it with nuclear power. With 28 reactors under construction and more to follow adding to their existing 17 reactors, they are doing what France did in the 1970’s. France now has one of the lowest emission intensities of any country.

    They also recognise the opportunity for renewable energy to assist in reducing emissions. To achieve a timely reduction in emissions from electricity generation we need a both/and strategy, both nuclear and renewable energy.

    • Steve Sawyer

      Interesting that wind generated electricity surpassed nuclear in China last year, and the margin between the two will continue to increase as wind power installations move towards the 100 GW mark by 2014, and over 200 GW by 2020.

      • Keith

        …and wind 1000GW by 2050. With solar 90-100GW by 2020 and given the trajectory of solar developments who knows how much solar by 2050?

        Are they going to need much nuclear in the light of the above (plus massive hydro in planning)?

        Sid forget gas, it’s a fossil fuel!!!!

        • http://energyinachangingclimate.info/ Martin Nicholson

          Keith, China obviously thinks so. They are realists.

          • Ronald Brak

            Why did they cut back their nuclear program then?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Post Fukushima China cut back their near term nuclear goals by one third. At the same time they greatly increased their wind and solar targets. The 2015 goal for solar recently increased from 5 GW to 31 GW.

            Renewable math is quickly changing. Nuclear plants may have looked good on the accountant’s desk a few years back when wind cost more than now and solar was just plain expensive. But a realist recognizes the numbers are different in 2013 than they were even two years ago.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The advantage China has over the developed world is that they have a lot of capacity that they need to build. They can choose the cleanest and most affordable.

      The developed world, in order to cut their CO2 output and lower melt-down risk, has to shut down existing capacity which creates stranded investments and major pushback on the part of those who own those generators/fuel sources.

      China can sit down with a piece of paper and calculate, for example, the cost of wind/solar/hydro vs. the cost of nuclear and coal.

      China can leapfrog the mistakes the developed world has made just as much of the less developed world jumped ‘land lines’ and went from no phones to cell phones. They avoided spending money on the intermediate step.

      France, since you brought them up, is starting to install wind and solar and planning on closing some of their nuclear plants before they’ve reached their normal lifetime end. Same with other countries such as German, Japan, Belgium and Switzerland who have decided to put nuclear risk/waste behind them. The cost of moving to renewables is higher because value is subtracted in the process.

      • Sean

        As opposed to the other advantage china has, it imports energy.
        If it can find a way to save money, and better yet, keep it in the country, it will.
        It sees importing energy as waste, that they could otherwise spend on buying raw materials to process and sell.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Makes sense to me. Why would a country import energy when they have all they need inside their boarders for free?

          Once you make the investment and install renewables you cut your fuel costs to zero. And you make drastic cuts to pollution.

          Moving from coal to renewables is such an obviously wise decision it’s hard to see why citizens of all countries don’t demand it. Health cost savings will quickly pay back the up front costs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.fisher1 James Fisher

    I spent 10 days in china 2 months ago and the level of pollution was overwhelming everywhere I went. Much of it is due to relatively small (15 to 50MW) low tech, heavily polluting coal fired power stations built in the middle of towns. It’s a major talking point everywhere you go so it isn’t surprising that the countries leaders are feeling pressure to act.

    • Sean

      It makes you wonder how much longer those small scale power stations will remain active?

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisherman Chris Herman

    So they would be giving themselves 3 more years to burn with impunity? Promises to be responsible seem hollow to me when they are that far out. The tanker analogy is apt.

    • Bob_Wallace

      They had to give industry a chance to change direction. Pretty much impossible to tell everyone that “as of tomorrow we burn no additional coal”.

      They set the start date for 2015 and the limit equal to what they were burning in 2011 which is less than they are burning now.

      The tanker analogy holds. It takes time to turn one around and head it in the opposite direction. One ends up going farther forward after the action to turn it around is taken.