Paris climate summit 2015

How China can tip the scales on climate change by ‘taming its coal dragon’, among other measures

Real change requires new mindsets, policies and technologies, and China can play the role of world saviour while catalysing its clean-tech industry with series of bold moves as UN meeting looms in Paris

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 3:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 2:49pm

“If we act quickly, we still have a chance to save the world.”

This is a popular mantra at climate change conferences, and it will be heard again at the global Conference of the Parties at the end of November in Paris. But for the first time, the notion is starting to look like more than wishful thinking.

Sure, the massive challenge is still there: We have little room to add more carbon emissions to the atmosphere before we pass the point of no return, yet emissions keep rising, and the prospect of a global agreement is dim.

But if we can accelerate positive trends and changes in three areas – mindsets, policies and technologies – we still have a chance to avert disaster.

And more and more people are deciding to do just this: Focus on what they can do, within their own spheres of influence.

First, we need to change mindsets, starting with clarity on the crisis.

Media, think tanks, business leaders, and politicians are all contributing to a growing network of people engaged with the issue.

Mainstream media are getting wiser to the “merchants of doubt,” in scholar Naomi Oreskes’ apt phrase for special interests aiming to sow confusion, and no longer giving them the same attention as climate scientists.

Indeed, journalists recently reported that ExxonMobil knew about climate risks as early as the 1970s, yet chose to deny the issue publicly.

Canada and Australia have both recently replaced dinosaur prime ministers with leaders who take the issue seriously, so there is an opportunity finally for these two wealthy, energy intensive economies to show leadership.

India has been slow, but now thought leaders like Arunabha Ghosh are drawing attention to global climate risks.

Meanwhile, many US businesspeople are ostriches on the subject. But that has only motivated Hank Paulson, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, to join former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg on a project explaining economic risks in the US context. Paulson is also now funding joint US-China research into ways to accelerate climate action.

Mindset changes need to be backed by policy commitments at all levels. Most of all, we need to price carbon pollution: Sweden for instance has shown that a carbon tax can reduce emissions without hurting economic growth.

Governments also need to phase-out fossil fuel subsidies, as the G-20 agreed to do in 2009, yet in 2013 governments spent more than US$548 billion on the sector.

Early-stage clean technology innovations need incentives and support, but R&D projects are grossly underfunded.

Incentives for purchase of electric vehicles have supported early adoption in many countries, but now we need more aggressive electric vehicle targets, as well as more investment in enabling infrastructure to help reach those targets.

And cities can do a lot on their own, including aggressive efficiency standards and road tolls to enable cleaner transportation.

Lastly, we need to accelerate deployment of new technologies.

The energy sector is inherently conservative, and often defaults to incumbent polluting resources when planning new projects. But there is huge potential for additional wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, biomass and marine renewables around the world.

Indonesia, for instance, relies heavily on coal and diesel, and has tapped only a small fraction of its abundant geothermal resources. Nigeria uses mostly gas for electricity, along with lots of kerosene and diesel, and is only now starting to pursue its attractive solar energy potential.

Indeed, the price of solar everywhere continues to drop rapidly, and will be at “grid parity” in many jurisdictions in the next five years – even without a price on carbon.

Energy storage technologies are another crucial piece of the puzzle.

Hydroelectric power already provides flexibility and reliability on many grids, and is well-suited to back up other renewables (as Norway’s hydro does for Denmark’s wind).

Other storage technologies are also showing great promise.

Aruba is building the world’s first grid-connected, compressed air energy storage system, and Moody’s Investors Service predicts that battery storage will be economically viable within three to five years in the US market, pushing aside peaking gas plants.

There’s something happening here.

Building on these exciting trends, what can China do to support the tipping point we need?

China is uniquely positioned to turn this promising patchwork into substantial global action by taking more aggressive steps to tame its coal dragon.

In particular, China could start reducing greenhouse emissions from coal-fired electricity within 10 years (not just intensity reductions, but absolute reductions). China already leads the world in renewable energy investment, and its plan for a national cap-and-trade programme provides an excellent opportunity to commit to an absolute reduction target in a transparent, measurable and efficient way.

Implementation of the target could be supported by other actions, such as restricting highly polluting (and often uneconomic) coal-to-chemical projects and allowing offsets from less developed countries.

In announcing such a bold target – real reductions in a decade – the Chinese government would catalyse its clean-tech industry and win praise from its pollution-weary citizens.

As the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong commented: “Countries used to believe that in the early stages of development they could grow first and deal with environmental problems later. Those days are over. Prosperity … must come with a responsible approach to the environment.” In the international arena, too, China would be sending a signal that it is maturing beyond its rapid growth phase into a true global leader: A 5,000-year-old civilisation that is ready to assume intergenerational responsibility.

There would be a huge knock-on effect on global mitigation efforts, and innovators the world over would be sure to respond. Indeed, such an ambitious plan might be remembered one day as the turning point that emboldened others, and ultimately averted climate disaster.

How’s this for a new mantra for Paris: “China, please save the world.”


John Haffner is a clean-tech and sustainability consultant in Asia and Canada.