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The unbearable lightness of emissions cuts

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One point I realised when researching my book DARK AGES: The looming destruction of the Australian power grid (Connor Court 2023), is that any attempt to control emissions internationally collapsed with the Paris treaty in 2015. The may seem counter-intuitive and certainly does not accord with the vast amount of activist material and media publicity generated over the treaty, but that is the conclusion that leaps out at anyone who has looked closely at the treaty. In other words, most of the effort and investment certain countries are putting into renewables and other nonsense such as Electric Vehicles will simply have no effect on the eventual emissions outcome. 

The Paris treaty which came into effect in 2020 permits each country to nominate its own emission goals, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). These can vary widely and for many countries, notably top emitters India, China and Russia, the NDCs were set so that those countries did not have to do anything at all. In any case, the goals themselves are not legally binding. The only legal obligation is to nominate goals, and to lodge updated, improved goals every five years or so. The countries involved have mostly since lodged updated goals which, for the major emitters, amount to little of substance.

In 2019, Climate Action Tracker, a group run by three climate organisations, looked at 32 countries which collectively account for 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, to find that by the group’s criteria just seven were doing enough to meet the Paris goals. Only one of those countries, India, was in the top ten of CO2 producing countries. However, CAT’s endorsement of India was basically wishful thinking. The group was impressed by the fact that the country had already met a major Paris goal of 40 per cent of its installed electricity base being non-CO2 generating plants, including hydro, biomass and nuclear as well as wind and solar. But the country was already almost at that figure before Paris, and the figure is for “installed” base. For solar and wind that can be very different from actual power generated. Reports by the same group since have done little to change that basic assessment. CAT lead web page indicates that almost no country is meeting its Paris obligations, where those obligations were in themselves inadequate to avoid the expected climate doom.

In any discussion of emissions China is everything. At last count the country generates 28 per cent of emissions, or more than the rest of the developed countries put together. At the time of writing China is binge building coal-fired power plants to create more capacity than its economy will need in the short term. Instead, they are being built with loans from the central government to stimulate the economy in certain provinces. The country is also spending a lot of money on wind generators and solar farms, probably for much the same reason as it has been building more coal power plants. A few years ago the Chinese were building dams everywhere. Before that it was smelters, conference centres, and, oh yes, whole cities in which no one lives. Climate is hardly relevant to any of it.

India (7% of global emissions) also has little time for emission control. As it remains a developing country with a power grid so rickety and blackout-prone that most major users have their own diesel generators, pious declarations about emissions would not mean much in any case. Like all developing countries, India is more interested in a $US100 billion a year fund which the rich nations are supposed to create in order to help the poorer nations reduce emissions, than in actually reducing emissions. Give us some money, the country is saying, and we will think about reducing emissions. Several developed countries are making genuine efforts to reduce emissions, including the UK, Germany and the US – sort of – but their efforts are being totally swamped by other countries, notably China, that are not doing anything much at all. But activists behave as emissions from the developed countries, including investment in renewables, are crucial. They are irrelevant. 

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