Changing climates

Changing climates

The Coalition’s 19th-century colonial time warp on climate

AAP/Lukas Coch

Greens senator Scott Ludlam’s prophecy that environment minister Greg Hunt has been directed to play solitaire for an entire term of office is so far holding up to scrutiny.

It is looking increasingly unlikely that Australia will meet even its now-minuscule target of cutting emissions to 5% of 2000 levels by 2020, in the face of news that the European Union has just agreed to cut emissions by 40% by 2030.

This landmark agreement leaves Australia’s bipartisan target pitifully short of any internationally credible benchmark. But even this target is being eroded by direct inaction on Hunt’s part and the coal mining lobby’s resurgence in Australia.

Not only has the gap between accepting the science of climate change and the Coalition’s policies on mitigation widened since assuming office, the government has discarded the links between them all together with an all-out sales pitch for coal as not just good for our economy but for humanity.

But Tony Abbott’s comments on coal have been widely misunderstood as simply an advertorial for the fossil fuel industry. The humanitarian argument behind his statement actually harks back to a colonial era of thinking about how the exploitation of natural resources can help developing countries as much as it can help the countries that are engaged in the exploitation.

Abbott’s comment is directly following the line of Hunt and fossil fuel-friendly climate contortionist Bjorn Lomborg that exporting coal to India is a charitable exercise because it means (according to Hunt):

… providing electricity to up to 100 million people in India … [who] can be lifted out of poverty.

As I have argued elsewhere, this argument is incredibly patronising, not simply because India itself is now supporting renewables ahead of coal, but because it disregards the oppressive legacy of colonialism in India itself.

To argue that Australia should lead poorer nations into the more destructive aspects of their economic activities is offensive.

Abbott and co. are inhabiting a 19th-century time warp that poor nations are on some kind of continuum to prosperity that is provided by the grace of developed nations. In fact, it is poorer nations that have actually been underdeveloped by capitalism and the activities of imperialist states that are hundreds of years old.

Promoting the same logic by which European capitalism under-developed Africa, South America and India hundreds of years ago is one of the most pathetic apologies for big coal ever seen in the post-colonial era.

But whereas – according to the Coalition – coal might be good for humanity in India, it seems that it is not as good for humanity when it is burnt in China. When the Abbott government was on its mission to repeal the carbon tax, its biggest argument was that the effectiveness of the tax would pale against the large emitters. China was cast as emitting so much carbon as to make Australia’s actual emissions (rather than its targets) look infinitesimal.

And this is while much of the coal actually being burnt in China is actually exported from Australia, only to arrive back in Australia as embedded energy in consumables.

China, and to a lesser extent India, were portrayed as rogue carbon citizens that weren’t making the first move to curb emissions, thereby absolving Australia and other countries from having to lift a finger. However, now that China has imposed tariffs on Australian coal, China’s larger scale “negligence” is not so easy to point to.

In a way, India and China represent the two-faced nature of the Coalition’s climate position. That is, the Coalition officially subscribes to an acceptance of the science, but then decries any action on climate change at home as inconsequential if large emitters do not address their own emissions while promoting fossil fuel in India under the disingenuous cover of addressing poverty.

In fact, Australia’s position on China, now complicated by the tariffs, has been patronising in the past. It is true that as the world’s largest emitter, China has provided convenient apologia for political elites in countries that have become lethargic about decarbonisation. To simply suggest that China’s energy infrastructure is reckless and carbon insensitive might be an easy sell to constituencies outside of China, but such a view is blissfully ignorant of China’s reality.

Firstly, it ignores the part that historical concentrations have played in getting carbon levels in the earth’s atmosphere to 400ppm, which far outweigh current emissions differentials between nations.

Secondly, the per capita inequities that exist between nations put China way down the list of offending nations, and Australia well up the list.

Thirdly, as the “workshop of the world”, China’s energy needs are not “domestic” in the way we usually think of energy use in industrialised nations. It is first-world consumers who are placing the largest demand on China’s energy infrastructure, ensuring that China will remain hungry for power, wherever it can get it from.

Put simply, China supplies global capitalism, that “monster of energy” that Friedrich Nietzsche once described, with the unsustainable consumer commodities that western lifestyles are borrowing from future generations.

Given that economic growth in China turned it into a freight train before any nation on earth began to even recognise climate change as a problem, it has been very hard for China to slow it down.

China has actually been more proactive on climate that many other nations around the world. While it surpassed the US in C02 emissions in 2007, this year its consumption of coal began to drop for the first time this century. Also, only a few months ago, China signed up to eight partnership pacts with the US to reduce C02 emissions.

In June this year, China joined the UK in calling on all nations to reveal their plan of action well before the Paris climate summit in late 2015 in a joint statement from British prime minister David Cameron and Chinese premier Li Keqiang. The two leaders also signed a series of deals on energy and low carbon technology.

Despite massive growth in electricity consumption and industrial production, China had managed to slow its emissions intensity between 2005 and 2013 by 28%. To achieve its current target of cutting up to 45% off 2005 levels by 2020, China’s investment in renewables may be decisive.

Most of the world thinks of China as the hub for solar PV exports. However, a Global New Energy Development report, released in July, reveals China to have taken top spot from Germany as the leading PV market.

Research and consulting firm GlobalData has also released a report recently, showing China has overtaken the US as the leading market in wind power – a capacity set to double in the next five years.

In short, China invests more annually in its renewable energy sector than all of Europe. And unlike market-based economies, China is encouraging electric car use by fostering substantial subsidies and tax breaks to transform private transport path dependence.

These innovations in new technology and renewables are obviously what China excels in. A more difficult challenge is establishing an effective national carbon market across its provinces, which is expected to be rolled out by the end of 2016. As with the renewables comparison, such a market – if successful – will dwarf the size of the largest current trading system, the EU. But China must learn from the mistakes of other start-up markets around the world if it is to be effective.

Domestically, China is making progress on decarbonisation at a pace that suggests it is serious about the risks of dangerous climate change, as well as cleaning up the medical issues associated with urban pollution.

For many nations, the speed with which they need to re-design their energy infrastructures to avoid the danger associated with two degrees warming is a challenge they are in denial about. And the lacklustre performance of recent climate summits is a measure of such denial.

According to a recent report by the Lowy Institute:

China is losing confidence in the UNFCCC’s effectiveness, and may turn to regional solutions if the next round of negotiations in Paris in 2015 is not fruitful.

Bloomberg reports that China (and India) are at least expecting the highest per capita carbon emitting nations to reform before they participate in UN-led talks. It is as though the political inertia of global negotiations is an unwelcome distraction from getting on with practical solutions in China.

Whereas the Chinese leadership is frustrated by political lethargy at international levels, the Australian government seems to be very welcoming of it. Australia was an active participant in sabotaging efforts in Warsaw in 2013, and has been trying its utmost to keep climate off the agenda at the Australian-hosted G20 Leaders’ Summit in November.

Part of this article is adapted from an earlier post for the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.