Saturday, October 2, 2010

China is the climate gorilla

When it comes to future emissons, it mostly comes down to China

An interesting article appeared in Science recently, modelling what would happen if no fossil fuel-burning facilities & machines were built ever again, as of right now. They found that while current warming is 0.5ºC over the historical baseline, future warming would rise to 1.3ºC under this scenario, below the 2ºC which is typically regarded as a sort of absolute must-not-go-beyond point of no return by the climate community.

This scenario involved letting all carbon sources (cars, electricity plants, etc.) age to their natural replacement lifetimes, then replacing them with some carbon-neutral technology. Needless to say, this is fantastically optimistic, but gives us a sort of baseline against which to view the energy and climate landscape we actually put into place.

Full-stop scenario for no new CO2 sources, by country/region.

The world uses about 12,000 GW of energy, and may want to use 30,000 GW by 2050. The mix is 85% fossil-fueled now, and the question is how to move to sustainable energy systems (i.e. 0%) as quickly as possible. As I have frequently argued, with renewable energy sources on the edge of economic viability, our public policy position (i.e. a carbon tax) is the only robust way to bring sustainable energy into use rapidly. Technological change alone is not enough when fossil fuels like coal fail to have their many external costs priced in. Indeed, government subsidies for fossil fuels still far out-strip those for renewable energy, not to mention other implicit external costs.

The paper provides some interesting observations on our actions in the past decade. In the US, the mean age of electric power plants is 32 years, making this end of our infrastructure ripe for a green revolution. In the last decade, the US has added 224 GW of new plants, of which only 3.5% have been coal, (halleluja!), 84% natural gas, and a surprising 12.7% wind. Not great, but we are making slow progress.

On the other hand, China has added 322 GW of coal generating plants in the last decade. This is one reason why China has such a huge influence on our future climate trajectory. Not only does China now emit more CO2 than any other country on earth, (thanks in part to their takeover of manufacturing on the world's behalf), but through its relatively recent build-out, China has also committed to huge emissions far into the future, quite apart from what machinery they build from here on out.
Proportions of 1326 GW of electrical generating capacity installed since 2000.

And since China is still climbing the industrialization curve, there may be plenty more where that came from. Per capita CO2 emissions are roughly half those in the US. While China may be at a peak of its dirty industry phase of development, its remaining poverty indicates that just in consumption terms, a great deal more build-out, more fossil fuel use, and more emissions are probable.

Of course China suffers from all this growth internally. Pollution is terrible and the government is more or less desperate to mitigate it. Green is on the agenda, both as a domestic priority (if somewhat far off) and as another industrial focus. This month's heavy-handed blockade of shipments of rare earth metals to Japan (used in manufacturing Prius cars, etc.) was one small skirmish in a far larger war for control of the green tech industry, which, as all these numbers indicate, is destined to have a staggering scale.

This is the other angle of China's status as key to the coming energy regime. Not only will it be the leading emitter, but it will be central to reducing emissions world-wide through its manufacturing and innovation heft. Will China speed towards green energy deployment, or is its green policy push only window dressing? Will it use its trade weight to kill nascent green sectors in other countries? Will it pursue retrograde policies in the developing world to corner energy and materials markets? Of course we in the US are hardly in a position to complain, having created international mayhem for decades out of our thirst for oil, and being far behind the green program ourselves, (the Kyoto program for example), but nevertheless, where is China going?

This link is an impressive rundown of the plans and progress China is making on the green energy front. Its current five year plan calls for reducing carbon intensity relative to GDP by 20%. This is substantial, but easily achievable by raising the mix of high-value manufacturing, and taking old infrastructure out of service, as well as installing green energy, including the enormous Three Gorges dam. And in the face of near 10% annual GDP growth, it means continuing rising emissions. In real terms, China out-invests us 2:1 in green energy. So it is easy to see that while the sunk (and soon-to-be-built) infrastructure of China is the leading element of future CO2 emissions, China is also the leading green tech investor and manufacturer of the future.

  • Mormons get married, or else!
  • Sex in the muslim world.
  • Imagine ... no, live in ... a country without religion.
  • Pot, coming in from the cold.
  • Skidelsky decries the hair shirt of British austerity.
  • A note on the coming class war in Europe.
  • The psychological mysteries of tipping. Note how here, as in religion, what people say and think they do is completely different from what actually happens.
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week, here quoting Alan Blinder, 1987:
"The political revival of free-market ideology in the 1980s is, I presume, based on the market’s remarkable ability to root out inefficiency. But not all inefficiencies are created equal. In particular, high unemployment represents a waste of resources so colossal that no one truly interested in efficiency can be complacent about it. It is both ironic and tragic that, in searching out ways to improve economic efficiency, we seem to have ignored the biggest inefficiency of them all." (Also, note Mitchell's quantitative treatment of mid-recession austerity.)

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