Time to act10 October 2014 by Jack Wittels
Next year's climate summit in Paris is arguably the world's last chance to keep global warming below the crucial 2°C level, but are the planet's biggest polluters ready to start making serious changes? Jack Wittels looks into the political and economic issues governing climate policy in the US and China.
In May this year, satirical American news site The Onion ran an article with the headline, "Scientists Politely Remind World That Clean Energy Ready To Go Whenever".
The piece concluded with a damning final line, "The world's leading economies have signalled they will continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels until they have something more than an overwhelming scientific consensus to go on."
Though intended as farce, the real irony is that this article isn't far from the truth. While some small countries have made enormous progress in emissions reduction - Iceland runs entirely on geothermal and hydropower - the world as a whole has made remarkably little progress. This is despite most leaders pledging to support the fight against global warming, as well as a series of UN-backed scientific reports warning of severe and irreversible consequences if more is not done in the very near future.
The apparent paralysis in cutting emissions was epitomised at the Copenhagen Climate Change summit in 2009, where leaders accepted that global warming should be limited to 2°C, but no commitments were made with regard to actually achieving this goal. In the end, the event produced nothing more than a flimsy accord that was cobbled together in a last-minute backroom meeting between the US and the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa India and China). The EU and the rest of the world had no input.
Copenhagen's failure to create any meaningful resolutions reflects the wider problem with a top-down approach to tackling climate change: it is nigh-on-impossible for so many different countries, with such varying economic structures, to follow a single set of rigid emissions requirements. Moreover, any universal agreement that can be reached is likely to be so watered down as to be redundant.
At the 2015 Paris conference - widely billed as the world's last chance to make a serious commitment to emissions reductions - a new, bottom-up approach will be adopted. Instead of submitting to overarching legislation, each country will put forward its own national action plan. It marks a significant shift in power and responsibility from the somewhat nebulous UN onto the shoulders of individual nations.
The proposals from the US and Chinese administrations, by far the two largest polluters on the planet, will prove pivotal to the talks. Each made strong, positive statements at the New York build-up summit this September: President Obama emphasised the need for both countries to lead on emissions reductions, while China's Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli pledged to take firm action on climate change. The question, as always, is whether the promises will be delivered.
In China, the single greatest obstacle to cutting emissions is coal. It currently produces around 70% of the nation's electric power, and is almost entirely responsible for powering the country through the world's largest and fastest industrial revolution.
But with energy demand expected to double by 2030, China desperately needs to start weaning itself off the dirty black rocks that have so far powered its progress. Failure to do so will not only make the global climate crisis significantly worse, it will also cause health problems at home. Air pollution already prematurely kills up to half a million Chinese a year, and 60% of the country's groundwater supply is no longer fit for human consumption.
Stephen Leahy, international eco-journalist and co-winner of the UN prize for reporting climate change, has interviewed numerous Chinese officials about emissions reduction. He believes they are taking the issue seriously behind the scenes, as well as in public.
"I've spoken to a number of them off the record, and they're very concerned about climate change," he says. "It's not just that they're worried about emissions, they also think we should save the fossil fuels we have for future generations. In their view, it would be immoral for us to burn everything. At the same time though, they have their financial issues, and want to make sure none of this hurts their economy."
Public policy in China has certainly started to shift along such lines. In addition to a reported closing down of 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces, current plans will see consumption capped to 3.9 billion tonnes from 2015. Both are small measures that are unlikely to seriously damage economic growth, but it shows the country is moving in the right direction. Beijing is also pushing for a substantial increase in the use of nuclear energy: 27 reactors are currently under construction, and total capacity is expected to shoot up to 150GW by 2030.
But China's most significant step towards emissions reduction is its ongoing, large scale investment in renewables. The country is now home to around 24% of the world's clean energy capacity, having spent $56.3 billion on new projects last year alone - more than the whole of Europe.
The green surge is strongest in the burgeoning solar sector, which is expected to see an extra 14GW of capacity added this year alone, bringing the national total to 34GW. The huge increase is partly a result of state subsidies, but is also due to the sheer size of many of the new projects: in Xinjiang, an enormous 1GW farm is currently being built by Trinity Solar.
In the US, energy policy is dominated by political infighting. The Republican Party, which now controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate, has blocked legislation that would have limited carbon pollution from coal power plants, and prevented the wind industry's vital production tax credit subsidy being renewed. It also defeated an amendment acknowledging the scientific truth of global warming.
Yet despite the Republicans' scepticism, the US is still managing to take some steps towards cutting CO2 levels. The boom in cheap, natural gas is starting to displace coal power, and in June, President Obama took yet another shot at the coal industry by announcing a 30% cut in carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning plants by 2030.
Many of America's cities have also become enclaves of strong green support: in New York, Democrat mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to cut emissions by 80% on 2005 levels by 2050. In San Francisco, the level has already been cut 15% below 1990 levels, and there is a 40% target for 2025. Overall, US renewables investment also reached $37bn last year, making it second only to China in the world rankings.
Leahy's main worry about America's energy future is that powerful fossil-fuel firms will continue to try to halt political progress.
"The big energy firms and their associates - the heavy power guys like large steel manufacturers - still form a very powerful bloc," he says. "These guys can call presidents for meetings. They have a huge amount of influence, and it's not just the fossil fuel users that have these interests: there are all the ancillary sectors as well. The railways, for instance, make a lot of money moving coal and oil around."
He is, however, more optimistic about a future change in Republican attitudes.
"When they're speaking off-the-record, a lot of them admit they're just waiting until it's okay for them to come out publicly and admit that climate change is a serious problem and action must be taken," he says.
"Some have done it already, but they lost their seats after a massive campaign against them, but once the momentum starts to shift in the right direction, it could all change quite quickly."
Negotiations have already begun between China and the US over how best to work together to reduce emissions. The atmosphere at these talks is reportedly cagey: the Asian giant worries that America is secretly planning to halt its economic growth, while the US wonders if false figures are being used to pull the wool over its eyes.
The situation is made more difficult by each side wanting the other to take the initiative. Passing green legislation is tough for the Democrats when Republicans will invariably want to know what China is doing first. From the latter's perspective, meanwhile, America is the more developed country, and should therefore shoulder the greater responsibility. Officials have also pointed out that the US still produces over twice as much CO2 per capita than China.
What seems clear is that the two colossal nations will have to reach an agreement and move together. Failure to do so in advance of the Paris 2015 climate summit will destroy any real chance of keeping global warming below 2°C. Success, on the other hand, will pave the way for a world-wide surge in climate action.