Category Archives: China

Fixing the climate-change problem is still affordable

But the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets.

Severe adverse effects from climate change can be avoided at a reasonable cost but only if politicians stop talking and start acting, a major report from PricewaterhouseCoopers said today.

Updating a study it first did two years ago, the accountancy firm said that inaction on reducing carbon emissions in the interim means the necessity for action has become even more urgent than before. It called on leaders of the Group of Eight leading economies, particularly the United States – the world’s largest per capita polluter – to commit themselves to firm timetables for emissions reductions at next week’s summit in Tokyo.

It estimated the cost of a 50% reduction in global carbon emissions by 2050 at around 3% of global economic growth, at the top of the 2%-3% range it estimated in 2006. This is slightly higher than the upwardly revised figure of 2% estimated by Lord Stern recently but PwC stresses that its forecasts are broadly in line with Stern and both are affordable.

Meanwhile, progress continues at the usual rate.

Carbon tariffs

Free-trader though I generally am, I’m forced to agree with the Toronto Star‘s editorial board that some kind of carbon tariff is in order. Once we have a carbon-taxing regime of our own in place, anyway. Here’s the Star:

With the growing realization in the West that the economy and the environment are but two sides of the same coin, a consensus is emerging that the only sure way to halt climate change is to put a realistic price on carbon that captures the environmental damage it is doing. This view, however, is being fiercely resisted on the other side of the planet, where carbon emissions are surpassing those of the West.

But putting a carbon price on goods produced in the West, through either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, will raise the price of those goods and thus lead to the export of even more jobs to countries that refuse to impose a price on the carbon that goes into the goods they produce. The net effect would be an economic loss in the West without any gain on the global climate change front.

When the link between trade and climate change are viewed from that perspective, the solutions become obvious. If developing countries are not willing to incorporate the price of carbon into the prices of the goods they produce, the industrialized world will have no choice but to impose a carbon tariff on imports from those countries.

The Edmonton Journal has some more technical details.

It’s become pretty clear by now that treating the atmosphere like a dump with infinite capacity isn’t going to work — that it amounts to a subsidy for wasteful industrial production. Now, often the thing to do with subsidies is to not permit them yourself, but take advantage of the other guy’s, so that you get cheap goods at the expense of your trading partner’s taxpayers.

Unfortunately, it’s everybody’s atmosphere. So if you put a carbon tax on your own economy, but allow free imports of goods from countries that don’t follow suit, you just end up transferring production elsewhere while doing nothing constructive at all for the environment, precisely as Canada’s Conservative government has warned:

“Our position internationally has been clear — while Canada is doing its part at home, we still need action on the world stage from countries like China, India, and the U.S., rowing together in the same direction,” said [Environment Minister John Baird’s spokesman Eric] Richer.

“Otherwise we won’t reduce greenhouse gases at all.”

So Canadians would get to pay some of the subsidy, by supporting damage to our own atmosphere with our own trade dollars. That’s a bad deal.

From one perspective, this is an argument for doing nothing, or very little, until everybody’s on board. From another, it’s an argument for playing rough with the competition, slapping a carbon tax on imports as well as your own domestic production. Given the amount we import from places like China, this could prove damned expensive, all the more so since the import tariff would have to apply to fuel used to transport things across an ocean, too.

Is it ideal? No. But if you think climate change is an urgent problem, it’s better than the alternative.

Canada’s strategy becomes apparent

The Globe has Geoffrey York on the ground at the Bali conference on The Protocol After The Kyoto One. He reports:

There are growing signs that the Harper government has formed an unofficial troika with Tokyo and Washington at the negotiations. Using similar language in their statements, the three countries seem to have co-ordinated their message, stressing that economic growth is just as valuable as the environment.

Argh. In the long term, they’re the same thing. The environment isn’t a nice thing to have, like an art gallery or a good baseball team. It’s a necessity, like a functioning marketplace with enforceable contracts. There’s a deep divide between those of conservative cast who get this and those who don’t.

…Canada said there must be a “balance” between the environment and “economic prosperity.”

There were other similarities, too. While they talked vaguely about long-term goals for the next 50 years, none of the troika made any mention of short-term targets for an agreement to replace Kyoto when it expires in 2012. None mentioned anything about binding commitments or mandatory targets for reducing greenhouse gases by 2020…

So all the talk of getting everybody, including China, India and the U.S., to sign onto meaningful targets was, in fact, just talk. York finds that China is ticked off at Canada‘s recalcitrance.

In its opening submission, Bejing called on developing countries to “contribute more to undertake commitments of policies and measures” to address climate change. It was the first time China had ever used the word “commitments” in any climate-change negotiation, analysts said.

I could scream.

Rewriting history

I’m not sure what to make of this story by the Canadian Press’s generally solid Alexander Panetta on goings-on at the Commonwealth summit in Uganda, so laden is it with misstatements that favour Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s post-Kyoto rhetorical position. Consider:

Harper said the key error of Kyoto was slapping binding targets on three-dozen countries but not the rest, including some of the world’s biggest polluters like the United States, China and India.

and

China, India, and the United States, none of whom are bound by Kyoto, account for more than half of global emissions alone.

Harper says they must all be brought on side in a global system that includes binding targets for everyone.

Um. I guess they’re all attributed to Harper in one way or another, and researching clarifications on the spot in Kampala can’t be easy.  (Speaking of which, let me be clear about my own view that Kyoto clearly didn’t work, for reasons more complex than the prime minister seems to be letting on.) But to suggest that Kyoto didn’t include binding targets for some of the world’s biggest polluters is just bull.

First of all, it did include binding targets for the U.S., but that country neglected to ratify the treaty, basically reneging on the deal it negotiated for itself. The treaty came into force regardless, when nearly all the other signatory countries ratified it, but the United States never acted accordingly. This is many things, but not an intrinsic flaw in the Kyoto treaty.

Second, while it didn’t include significant greenhouse-gas targets for China and India and other developing countries, that only became a problem because nobody foresaw just how fast their economies would industrialize and expand. Not taking into account an oracular knowledge of the future is a risk in any agreement. It did happen to be particularly important in an agreement on greenhouse gases, but if Harper is saying that any future treaty will have to predict the future perfectly or else he’s not going in on it, we’re going to be at this a very, very long time.

Kyoto proved to be an inadequate deal, but if we’re not going to repeat the mistakes, we need to be clear on what those mistakes actually were.

Sighing about APEC

I can’t think of much to add about the nearly meaningless deal on greenhouse-gas emissions the APEC leaders reached last week, except these two small points.

  1. It’s kind of discouraging that a draft of the “final communiqué” leaked nearly a month ago (because almost all the work for these leaders’ summits is done beforehand by underlings) and firmly denounced by people with credibility on climate change nevertheless reflected pretty much exactly what the final final communiqué said.
  2. Having major industrialized countries, including China and the United States and others led by people who’d rather do nothing (Canada and Australia, in particular), committing to the idea that we have a problem we have to do something about and making specific promises to have future talks … at least that’s something. It’s 25 years late and repeating a process we’ve already worked through, but we’re not talking about how unclear the science is for a change.

That’s all. Sigh.

Dongtan’s not working, and neither is much else in China’s new environmentalism

One of EcoLibertarian’s most steadily popular posts has been one from last April on Dongtan, one of China’s green “concept” cities. The place sounds like a nice idea, I wrote, but China seemed to envision it as a sort of non-working model, a massive subsidized eco-campus that didn’t function the way a real city does, with industry and commerce and everything:

So we’re mostly talking about a sort of Chinese version of Epcot Centre, the urbanological equivalent of a concept car or a campus, self-sustaining environmentally but not economically. Only in a controlled economy like China’s would such a thing be possible even as an experiment.

WorldChanging has followed up on the matter, tracking some Big Media coverage of Dongtan and some similar projects. They’re not working out so well.

Some of it’s a result of routine Chinese corruption and ineptitude. Newsweek:

The project appears to be a mess. Construction of the 400 houses is way behind schedule. The 42 that have been built still have no heat, electricity or running water. Walls are already cracking and moisture seeps through the ceilings. According to people who’ve worked on the project, many of the houses don’t adhere to the original specifications—meaning they could never achieve the energy savings they were meant to achieve. The biomass gasification facility meant to burn animal, human and agricultural waste, doesn’t work.

But there’s also a cultural problem, noted by the BBC. Dongtan in particular is being seen as a place where wealthy Shanghainese can get away from the polluted nastiness of the megalopolis on the Yangtze River, and where wealthier expat Chinese can keep pieds-à-terre:

But some observers, such as Professor Chen of Tongji University, think that the local planners are more concerned with raising the income and standard of living of the region than ensuring ecological development.

They say that the new ecologically-sound housing developments may not be affordable by locals and could become suburban housing for the rich.

Already many have been purchased by overseas Chinese.

Other data points: Beijing is bursting at the seams, despite the government’s effort to contain it, and 84 per cent of young Chinese people really, really want cars their government hopes they won’t buy.

Evidently the old industrialization policies have some inertia.

Why China has to do something

James Fallows, The Atlantic‘s man in China, offers a two-image photo essay on the air in Beijing.