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Too late for emissions control

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With the IPCC producing another huge report with yet another call to do something about emissions, I thought it might be interesting to look at what is happening with emissions. Below is a list of major emitting countries and what they are actually doing about carbon emissions. The list was originally compiled as an answer to those who thought net-zero emissions was a serious possibility. As any reader will see, the cause is quite hopeless. If we are going to get all the dire results forecast by the IPCC - as they are typically quoting extreme scenarios I don't believe we will, but let's not argue the point - then tough, its going to happen. Adaption is then the way to go.

List of top emitters (share of CO2 produced annually)

China (28%) – President Xi Jingping’s announcement in September of 2020 that China would aim for peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060 would be more believable if the country was not, at the same time, binge-building coal fired power plants. Green group Global Energy Monitor estimates that China commissioned 38.4 Gigawatts worth of new coal plants in 2020, or more than three quarters of new plants world-wide. This is also far more than the Chinese economy will need in the short term. The plants are being built, with loans from the central government, to stimulate the economy in certain provinces. Climate just isn’t relevant. The latest news is that a number of mothballed coal plants are being recommissions to cope with additional demand.
USA (15%) – American President Joe Biden signed the Paris treaty as a presidential agreement, not as a treaty binding the country. The wording on the document, negotiated when Obama was president, was even changed so that it could not be considered a treaty under American law. Otherwise, it would require a two thirds majority in the Senate, and that’s never going to happen. President Biden has a climate agenda to match his rhetoric but has to grapple with congress and a senate with a wafer-thin democratic majority to get any of it through. In the meantime the states are pursuing their own agendas which vary all the way from the loony-woke California which intends to ban the sale of petrol cars by 2035, though to Republican Texas where the legislature remains opposed to passing any environmental plans.
India (7%) – India set up its self-determined goals under the Paris climate treaty so that it could meet them easily. One part of its pledge is to “cut greenhouse gas emissions intensity of its gross domestic product by 33% to 35% by 2030”, but this is meaningless as the intensity is declining anyway. With its hands full with the Covid pandemic the country has also shied away from net zero declarations. As India remains a developing country with a power grid so rickety and blackout-prone that most major users have their own diesel generators, a declaration about net zero emissions would not mean much in any case. Like all developing countries, India has a strong interest in a $US100 billion a year fund which the rich nations are supposed to create in order to help the poorer nations reduce emissions. This figure was mentioned as an aspirational, ideal goal at one international meeting and quickly became a hard target, although only a tiny fraction of the amount is ever likely to be forthcoming. Failure to produce this money may well become a handy excuse for developing countries to not do anything about a problem which they say the developed countries have created.

Russia (5%) – Russia’s goal under the Paris treaty, updated in 2020, is to limit its emission levels in 2030 to 70 per cent of the levels of 1990. This sounds impressive but, as even green commentators have noted, that’s about the time the old, inefficient and heavily polluting Soviet industrial base was wiped out by the dissolution of the old Soviet Union. The Russian economy was subsequently hit hard by the global financial crisis and again by the Western sanctions, over the annexation of the Crimea, and a major fall in oil prices. Russia doesn’t have to do anything to meet its Paris goals.
Japan (3%) – In October 2020 Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared that Japan would achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Fine words but the current Paris target is for a 26 per cent reduction in emissions from 2013 levels by 2030, and news outlet Nikkei Asia notes that the country still has 150 coal fired power plants. The government is pushing for the efficiency of the plants to be increased which may be useful but hardly sounds like the drastic action required to achieve net zero.

Germany (2%) – Like the UK, Germany is one of the few countries that has shown any political will in cutting emissions to the point of spending billions of Euros on solar panels, although it is not a naturally sunny place. After previously declaring that it will phase out coal fired plants by 2038, the country has now decided to try to phase them out by 2030. Even if wind turbines and solar panels could fully substitute for coal plants, and they still need to be backed up by conventional power, it’s not clear how the necessary number of turbines will be built in time, or at all. All the best spots for wind turbines, offshore and onshore, have been taken and new projects are encountering increasingly tough opposition from nearby residents. Despite all this effort and spending it is difficult to point to any reduction in emissions. In fact, emissions have increased in the past few years because the country’s very active green lobby has also forced the government to de-commission the Germany’s nuclear power plants. 

Iran (2%) – One of the few countries not to have ratified (confirmed that it will comply, as opposed to signed) the Paris treaty, the country has many other matters to contend with besides emission reductions.
South Korea (2%) – This country has declared that it will cut emissions by 24 per cent from a 2017 baseline by 2030. However, it plans to do so by buying green credits from overseas and, according to Climate Action Tracker, by increasing the carbon absorbed by forestry and land use. Experienced observers of the climate action scene may suspect that the country may simply fiddle with assumptions for carbon absorbed by forests and land use to find extra credits, as other countries have done, notably in meeting obligations under the earlier Kyoto protocol. No need to bother industry or voters.

Saudi Arabia (2%) – The goal declared under the Paris treaty involved cutting emissions and increasing the use of nuclear energy and renewables but this was made dependent on “a robust contribution from oil export revenues to the national economy”. Oil prices are down so not much is happening.  

Indonesia (2%) – Listed as a major emitter because of its treatment of forests and carbon-rich peatlands, the country has promised to clean up its practices in this area, which includes doing something about slash and burn farming. Farmers will clear an area for, say, a palm oil plantation, by burning it out. This practice can cause major fires, as occurred in 2019 – fires which produce more carbon dioxide per day than the entire American industrial output. Ending the practice is easier said than done as these farmers do not start the day by logging onto government websites to find out what they shouldn't be doing.

Other notes

The UK – not one of the top ten emitters, the UK has announced all sort of initiatives for reducing emissions including building a host of offshore wind farms (finding suitable sites onshore is now too hard) as well as proposing that anyone selling their house has to replace the standard boiler with a less efficient heat pump.
As this switch is expected to cost more than £10,000 ($A18,400), with the UK media reporting that installation may cost more than three times that, depending on what has to be done to the wiring and pipes of old homes, the Johnson government is now back peddling on the initiative. However, that is the sort of drastic, electorally unpopular action that must be taken to have any hope at all of getting to net zero in the foreseeable future.

European Union – the EU is often considered one entity for any listing of emissions, ranking about fourth in the world, and has one of the strongest climate policies. In December 2020, EU leaders endorsed a binding EU target for a net domestic reduction of at least 55% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990. This sounds good but a look at the attachments to the original announcement reveals gems like this, “some hard to abate sub-sectors, notably aviation, will also require the development of advanced biofuels and sustainable alternative low or zero carbon fuels and gases”. There is also a discussion on re-evaluating the EUs “land use sink”, in other words find that more carbon has been absorbed by Europe’s forests than previously calculated.
All that said the EU finally has a carbon price through its Emissions Trading Scheme that is high enough to affect change. After years of struggling to get above €20 per tonne and plagued by instability, in early July a tonne of carbon abatement was worth an astonishing €57 plus. But such a high carbon price means that voters will be digging deeper into their own pockets to pay for climate change, and they will not be happy.

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