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China and the US step up on climate

Ambition has awakened the global energy giants, China and the United States. Both nations have recently strengthened commitments to address climate change and announced plans to strengthen collaboration…

In the last few years, both China and the US have ramped up efforts to address climate change. Stefano Paltera/US Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon

Ambition has awakened the global energy giants, China and the United States. Both nations have recently strengthened commitments to address climate change and announced plans to strengthen collaboration.

China has the world’s largest renewable energy capacity and is moving towards a national emissions trading scheme (ETS) from 2016. The United States now has 10 states with operating emissions trading and has almost doubled renewable energy capacity in the last four years. Quickly and quietly a new direction may be unfolding.

The Climate Commission today released The Critical Decade: Global Action Building on Climate Change. This report discusses recent changes around the world focusing on developments in China and the US.

At the time of the Climate Commission’s last report on international climate change action, the United States election and the change of Chinese leadership were on the immediate horizon. In November 2012, President Barack Obama was re-elected. He quickly affirmed his commitment to tackling climate change and investing in cleaner energy sources, saying in his second inauguration speech:

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.

In March 2013, Chinese leaders named Li Keqiang Premier for a five-year term. The Chinese leadership has also affirmed its strong commitment to tackling climate change.

The commitment from two of the world’s largest economies delivers substantial policy certainty and continuity for the global effort to tackle climate change. This is also expected to build confidence internationally.

Across the globe momentum is building: 35 countries and 13 sub-national jurisdictions are already operating emissions trading. Since August 2012, four new emissions trading schemes have begun:

  • California, the world’s 9th largest economy, commenced an emissions trading scheme on January 1 2013.

  • Québec, the second largest Canadian province in terms of population and GDP, also commenced an ETS on January 1 2013.

  • Croatia became the 31st country to join the European ETS.

  • Kazakhstan introduced a national ETS.

China will begin the first of seven sub-national pilot schemes later this year. Together, these seven cities and provinces have a combined population of 256 million and annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to about twice the emissions covered under the Australian scheme. This is action to address climate change at a giant scale. Although some details of the Chinese schemes are not known, the ambition and the commitment to address climate change are impressive.

Once all 35 national schemes, 13 sub-national schemes and the 7 Chinese pilots schemes are in operation they will cover a population of about 880 million people and approximately 30% of the world’s economy.

In addition to developments in carbon pricing, the growth in renewable energy is striking. In 2012 China invested US$65.1 billion in clean energy, a 20% increase on 2011. This was the highest of any nation, well above the United States investment of US$35.6 billion. China’s investment represented 30% of the entire G-20 nations’ investment in 2012. China’s solar PV capacity increased 75% in 2012 and installed wind power capacity reached 63,000 megawatts, almost 50 times the capacity in 2005.

In the United States, the latest reporting of greenhouse gas emissions (for 2011) shows annual emissions have already declined by 7% since 2005. In addition, electricity sector emissions for 2012 were the lowest since 1996. Policy settings, the impact of the economic downturn and a progressive shift away from coal to gas have all contributed.

Only a few years ago some commentators pointed to insufficient action in China and the United States to delay action in Australia. Today the energy giants are not just on the move, but are striding into the future.

While significant achievements have occurred, it is not enough. Globally emissions are continuing to rise strongly, posing serious risks for our society. The dangerous effects of climate change are becoming reality. Heat, flood and rainfall records defined our Angry Summer of 2012-13. The world is still tracking to have a temperature increase of more than 2°C this century and many projections indicate 4°C or more. Temperature increase must be limited to 2°C to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change.

Australia’s global influence in averting these risks will depend on how effectively we implement policy solutions at home. Australia is the 15th largest emitter, larger than 180 other countries. This means that Australia has a responsibility to play its part and that Australian actions have a global influence. This decade must set the foundations to reduce emissions rapidly to nearly zero by 2050. The earlier such action is under way the less disruptive and costly it will be.

Action is accelerating. Global giants, China and the United States, are taking steps to become global leaders in climate action. However, all countries must move beyond their current commitments to reduce emissions. This is the critical decade to turn the global emissions trend downwards and to set the global foundations for our future.

Comments on this article are welcome, provided they are on-topic: how well are countries overseas addressing emissions reduction, and how do Australia’s efforts compare?

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  1. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. In reply to Sean Lamb

      Comment removed by moderator.

    2. In reply to Sean Lamb

      Comment removed by moderator.

    3. In reply to Mike Hansen

      Comment removed by moderator.

  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    With China I'd believe what we see not what we hear. Some seeds of doubt emerge when we consider
    - China's threatened EU airline boycott over the carbon tax
    - their pledge to limit annual coal use to 4.2 Gt, currently 3.9 Gt
    - Clive Palmer's new Qld coal mine to be called 'China First'.

    The US has displaced some coal burning with cheap shale gas. When the fracking boom peaks in a year or two coal may make a comeback as it has in Germany. In the US the EPA has backpedalled on their threat to limit thermal plant to ~450kg CO2 per Mwh, thus precluding coal. That rule, not yet law, may now only apply to new plant. In terms of low cost proven thermal technology that means either nuclear or combined cycle gas. However US gas prices only have to revert a few years so if they drop the EPA rule then coal is king once again.

    Like I say believe it when you see it.

    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      That would be fine Tyson if it really would have a longer term impact for no doubt the countries we export to would be looking at developing alternate sources as if Australia had not had any to start with, so in addition to antagonising international market places and likely seen abroad in many places as a nation with whom trading should not occur, we would still have the extent of if not more pollution occurring abroad if there was a swing back to coal instead of gas if alternate supplies of that…

      Read more
    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      And when the latest I Phones/pads tablets and whatever come along, there'll likely be organisations wherever that have managed to get their hands on whatever is required to manufacture an equivalent, benefits usually going to where stuff can be manufactured dirt cheap even if there is really no great advantage to mankind and we just see more and more energy and resources required.

      That's a version of reality you need to get your head around Tyson otherwise you will be somewhat like what you think the reality version for the environment is, only worse.

  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Moving towards a national ETS and reaffirming commitment to climate change do really sound a bit aspirational.
    Meanwhile just how many coal fired power stations are being built and also taking older smaller ones into account, just how much is coal use accelerating?
    China certainly has done well as far as renewables generation with the three gorges dam but ets and that aside, it is still the bottom line that needs to be examined.

    " Croatia became the 31st country to join the European ETS. "
    The European ETS!
    Did they get some sort of a deal that could not be refused?

    The issue is not having countries sign up to any sort of an ETS but with developing nations and the level of generation per capita that are going to climb from multiplied by their populations is going to see CO2 soar and soar and to deny that is just trying to gloss over reality with more spin and we have had too much of that already.

  4. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Your science denying has become such an obsession Sean that you are now boxing shadows.

      Your National Post article is in fact a blog post predicting drought which was debunked by climate scientist Dr Mike Rourke from ANU Climate Research

      "The reality is that the best climate scientists is the world can not confidently predict drought or periods of excessively high rainfall more than 3-6 months into the future. They can predict a general trend…

      Read more
    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      "Your National Post article is in fact a blog post"
      No my National Post article was in the National Post, as far as I know it is not online. I gave my copy of that particular National Post to someone in Bogia.
      The prediction was from NARI and that would have been based on state of the art climate prediction in the region and the hegemonic power in climate science in the region is Australia.
      This is from 2009
      " To address such a situation, a…

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    3. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Sean Lamb

      So the dog ate your homework. Like Lawson you are long on claims, short on proof - part of being a denier I suppose.

      The fact is that climate models are looking at long term trends - they are not designed to predict weather.

      The BOM do provide seasonal forecasts. Obviously in our region monitoring ENSO is key.

      I appreciate that this is wasted on a science denier but if anyone else is interested, these will help.

    4. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Oh Lord love a duck. Mr Hansen you don't dispute that NARI was predicting a mega-drought in 2012? You don't dispute that NARI developed this view in collaboration with BOM and the Queensland Climate Change Centre?
      The only additional information in the National Post article was a description how local authorities had apparently plastered the Wahgi valley with pink sheets warning villages about the impending drought and suggesting they move gardens closer to the river. Which they duly did and…

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    5. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Oh Lord love a duck. You are a science denier Sean. Why would I believe anything you say about science - your track record is to get anything related to the subject wrong. Free tip - anecdotes are not evidence. You and Lawson should compare notes - his version of evidence is to provide a link and tell me to find it myself. Hilarious.

  5. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    I would just like to place on record my belief in the absolutely stellar record Professor Flannery and the rest of the Australian meteorological community have when it comes to giving climate advice to our near neighbours.

    China can be assured of as many years of economic prosperity should they follow our sagacious precepts - at least as many years as others who we have generously assisted in this regard.

  6. Mark Lawson

    senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

    Many of Prof Flannery's statements are highly contestable.
    This - "China has the world’s largest renewable energy capacity and is moving towards a national emissions trading scheme (ETS) from 2016".

    Really? Last I heard China was planning pilot schemes in several major cities, but they would not cover power stations. To call it a national scheme is stretching a point a very long way indeed.

    This - "The United States now has 10 states with operating emissions trading" . Again, really? There are three multi-state emissions trading schemes in the US of which I am aware. One has stopped operating. The carbon price has collapsed to nominal levels ($2 last I looked) in another and then there is the Californian scheme which is still operating albeit only after starting late last year, and with carbon prices now at half the starting value.

    1. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Now I appreciate Mark that in climate science denier circles, the anecdote is the highest form of proof - but for the rest of us, when you make claims can you supply a link so we can check.

    2. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Mike - no excuse for you, the incident and the "dams will never be full again" forecast it provoked are notorious, and its frequently quoted. The fact that you were unaware of it, and are now trying to claim it doesn't exist, is horrifying. Here is a link that will help you find it.

    3. Tony Xiao

      retired teacher

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      China issued tentative ETS regulations in June 2012 and launched pilot programs in the cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing and Shenzhen, as well as the provinces of Guangdong and Hubei.
      According to a statement in Dohu last December, China hopes to extend its pilot ETS to across the nation in its new five- year plan starting 2016.

    4. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      "the "dams will never be full again" forecast"

      i.e. :

      "We're already seeing the initial impacts and they include a decline in the WINTER rainfall zone across SOUTHERN Australia,"

      For example:

      i.e. Flannery's forecast is correct so far. It's only clowns like Lawson who quote Flannery out of context.

  7. Mark Pollock


    So this is the critical decade to turn the emissions trend downwards? I thought it was the last decade? Maybe when you're making those big, big bucks from scaring people about the coming apocalypse ever second counts.

    Meanwhile the Chinese will continue to rub some warmy tummies and build new coal plants as fast as well paid greenies buy waterfront properties.

  8. Doug Hutcheson


    As long as Australia both consumes and exports coal and natural gas, two top sources of CO₂ emissions, we cannot be said to be fighting the war on global warming. To say "Temperature increase must be limited to 2°C to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change", is to say we can safely export CO₂ until the 2° ceiling is reached. The trouble is, no-one knows how bad 2° will be. If we were a logical species, we would urge - indeed, force - our government to do much more to combat CO₂ emissions.

  9. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks for this, Prof Flannery. One question: why is there no comparison between the bankster-preferred emission trading schemes discussed here, and the more effective, less inequitable carbon consumption tax operating* in British Columbia?

    * Still operating, despite the best efforts of Canada's conservatives, its "Liberal Party", to kill the tax off.