The climate science might be gloomy but at least governments seem to be doing something about it. The number of laws passed to address climate change is steadily increasing across the world. By last year 127 countries had renewable energy support policies, for instance.
But this is only half the story. Examination of public policy developments in the US, EU and China, the world’s three largest economies by far, has shown that side by side with policy initiatives designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions have come new policies that have the opposite effect: increased emissions.
This is a class of policies that we don’t talk about because it doesn’t have a name. Let’s call them “anti-climate policies”.
We are not talking here about the numerous existing policies that perpetuate emissions. Anti-climate policies are new initiatives that increase emissions: steps backwards in the fight against climate change. Their existence means that strengthening climate policies will not be enough to defeat climate change alone; anti-climate policies will need to be tackled as well.
Worse than nothing
There are lots of anti-climate policies out there – subsidies for householders’ energy bills, support for energy-intensive manufacturing or chemical industries, or building new roads and airports – but three stand out as the most damaging.
First, there is the licensing of new fossil fuel-fired power stations, especially in China. Figures from the US Energy Information Administration indicate that between 2000 and 2011 fossil fuel electricity generation capacity rose by 34% in China, 6% in the US, and 15% in the EU-27.
Then you have the new and ever higher subsidies for fossil fuels. Numerous new tax breaks for exploration have been introduced in the US, for instance. In the EU new tax breaks have mainly focused on fossil fuel use in energy-intensive industries and transportation, although in the UK tax breaks for exploration have been expanding rapidly. The International Energy Agency reports that in 2011 fossil fuel subsidies worldwide came to US$523 billion, six times the level of support for renewable energy.
International trade liberalisation is the other main anti-climate policy. Despite the fact that more trade increases greenhouse gas emissions by expanding economic activity and increasing the use of cross-border transportation services, governments keep signing them.
The most recent significant agreement was the one that required China to remove trade barriers in order to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Between 2000 and 2010 the EU, US and China concluded new bilateral trade agreements with each other and other countries almost every year.
What is to be done?
Some progress has already been made. Both the US and UK have moved to introduce emissions limits for new power stations that conventional coal-fired power plants cannot meet, effectively banning new such plants.
Although the projected increase in electricity demand in China is so huge that banning new coal-fired stations altogether would cripple the economy, in 2013 the Chinese government introduced a ban on approvals of new coal-fired power stations in three of the country’s most important industrial regions. This is in addition to a programme that has been closing down small inefficient thermal power stations since 2008.
Efforts to extend blocks on new coal-fired power stations to other countries may strengthen as renewables become more credible and increase their lobbying power.
G20 communiqués announcing agreements to phase out fossil fuel subsidies have not been matched by action. Governments appear to view exploration subsidies, for example, as investments that will bring in more tax once oil and gas fields are in production. Industry lobbying is also much in evidence, especially in the US, judging by trends in political contributions.
What is needed is a spotlight on the hypocrisy of governments that expand fossil fuel subsidies while claiming to care about climate change. We also need to tackle deceits such as David Cameron’s assertion that fracking will reduce emissions by displacing coal with fracked gas. What does he think will happen to the displaced coal? It will be used by someone else.
Trade liberalisation continues to be vigorously pursued. Global negotiations launched in 2001 in Doha are aimed at reaching a major multilateral trade-opening agreement, while the US and EU are currently negotiating a bilateral Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. As there is a broad consensus that trade opening boosts economic growth, direct opposition to trade is unlikely to be successful, although the fact that trade opening increases emissions needs to be publicised.
A cannier tactic would be to support the efforts of groups that for other reasons stand to lose by new trade deals, such as US and EU farmers. And the failure so far of the Doha round to reach agreement suggests that such deals can be blocked.
Bringing greenhouse gas emissions under control is going to be difficult. To succeed we need to take all relevant factors into account. This means that more attention needs to be paid to anti-climate policies and how they can be countered.