Big Carbon Players Jockey for Advantage

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Inter Press Service

Big Carbon Players Jockey for Advantage

Stephen Leahy

A man walks past a cement factory on the outskirts of Baokang, Hubei province in this February 26, 2009 file photo. Global warming is fast rising in the pile of crises facing China as it pursues the unshakeable goal of economic growth while grappling with international pressure to curb its greenhouse gas output. (REUTERS/Stringer)

NY-ÅLESUND, Svalbard, Norway - Political and business leaders may agree in principle that climate change is a serious threat, but there is a startling lack of consensus and a 'you-go-first' attitude on taking action, even amongst a small group of high-level decision makers disconnected from their cell phones here in the Arctic.

"We want to reduce China's CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, but we are a market-driven economy," Liu Yanhua, China's vice minister for science and technology, told 30 participants at the Ny-Ålesund Symposium located at a scientific research centre called Kings Bay on the western coast of Spitsbergen Island about 1,200 kilometers from the North Pole.

"Climate change is a matter of economy, of energy," said Yanhua, a former scientist at the Chinese Institute of Geography.

It is also an issue of generational equity, since at current rates all fossil fuels will be consumed in 50 to 80 years, leaving nothing for future generations, he said.

China's CO2 emissions have soared 150 percent in the last 20 years, Yanhua acknowledged, and are now the highest of any country, including the United States. China's carbon intensity - the amount of carbon emitted per unit of production - is 10 times higher than Germany's and major efficiency improvements are needed, he said.

In 2005, China set a target of 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency by 2010. Inefficient operations were shut down and major investments in energy efficiency have been made.

"We don't give companies money we give them experts and scientists to solve their energy problems," Yanhua said.

In another effort, China subsidises the cost of buying costly hybrid vehicles and more efficient refrigerators to help reduce the country's energy burden.

However, while keen on energy efficiency, China has little interest in agreeing to put a cap on its emissions at the final round of international climate negotiations later this year in Copenhagen. At the conclusion of preliminary meetings last week in Bonn, Germany, Chinese officials announced they would never agree to a mandatory cap because their economy needs to grow.

China is also not so sure that the European target of climate stabilisation at 450 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the "safe level". Perhaps it is higher - up to 750 ppm, suggested Yanhua.

He did agree with the business leaders at the symposium that there must be a price on carbon in order to motivate business to reduce their emissions or pay the cost. However, another unresolved issue is whether the producer or consumer of goods ought to pay that carbon price, he noted.

Japanese industry also remains unconvinced that climate change will be that bad and wants other countries to take action to reduce their emissions first, said Yasuko Kameyama, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan.

Japan is world's fifth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce its emissions by six percent by 2012 - a target officials admit it will not reach.

"Japan did nothing because industry did not think the Protocol would be ratified," Kameyama told IPS.

Kyoto was ratified in 2005 and Japan lost eight years doing nothing, she said.

"In Bonn, Japan will likely announce a reduction target of seven per cent from 1990 levels by 2020," Kameyama said.

In fact, last week Japan announced a carbon emissions reduction target of 15 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, which works out to seven or eight percent compared to 1990.

To stay within the 450 ppm target, industrialised countries must reduce their collective emissions by 25 to 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and by at least 70 to 80 percent by 2050, climate science experts agree.

Japanese industry officials claim the country was already far more energy-efficient than other countries back in 1990, making it more difficult to reduce emissions further, Kameyama says. And as a small country, Japan, unlike the U.S., has very little opportunity to use its land base to capture carbon by planting trees or changing its agricultural methods.

"Our research does show that it is possible to reduce Japan's emissions by 70 percent by 2050," Kameyama said.

Acting soon is key, as delaying another decade would make it difficult to stabilise the climate even at 550 ppm, she said.

Meanwhile, the United States is back in the climate game, announced Edward Canuel of the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, Norway. President Barack Obama is committed to combating climate change and has invested billions in green energy projects through the country's economic stimulus plan.

The U.S. Congress also hopes to pass the Waxman-Markey bill before the Copenhagen climate talks, putting the country on target for a CO2 reduction amounting to five to six percent below 1990 levels for the year 2020.

However, critics say it may still be too little, too late.

"The Waxman-Markey bill is not nearly ambitious enough and it might not pass," said Andreas Merkl, director of global initiatives at ClimateWorks, an environmental policy group with offices in Germany and the U.S.

"If it's not passed, then a Copenhagen deal is dead," said Merkl.

Business has little expectation Copenhagen will produce a breakthrough, acknowledged Bjørn Stigson, president of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), in Geneva, Switzerland.

The WBCSD is a global association of about 200 very large companies dealing exclusively with business and sustainable development. The organisation commissioned ClimateWorks to develop Project Catalyst, a detailed plan on how to reduce emissions to stabilise the climate at 450 ppm.

"It is 80 percent likely the U.S. will not have something (namely, Waxman-Markey) to bring and a Copenhagen agreement will be weak and rather shallow," Stigson told symposium participants.

What is crucial for global society is that the doors remain open for future negotiations in 2010, and that business become a full partner in the negotiation process, he said.

The WBCSD and its members know that transformational change is needed to meet the climate challenge, he added. "There is a realisation that business needs to deliver on the real problems we're facing or we'll be out of business."

However, there are many corporate interests that do not agree with this as yet, he admitted.

Without significant and widespread action very soon, emissions will surpass 450 ppm, very likely exceeding two degrees C and possibly even three degrees C of warming, entering dangerous and irreversible levels of climatic change, experts agree.

"It will be hard to get under 550 ppm," said Stephen Schneider, a leading climatologist at Stanford University in the United States and a lead scientist with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"I think it is virtually guaranteed that we will have to lose a major city, likely before 2050, and then there will be major action," said Schneider, who has been researching climate for more than 30 years. "There will be this sudden realisation: 'What have we done?'"

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