China: ready to pay the price

by Bryan Walker on November 27, 2010

ames Hansen was in China when the American midterm elections were held, and he reports that while the rest of us were feeling pessimistic he was becoming optimistic. Not because of what was happening in the US, but because of China. He found two reasons for optimism, the first of which he has explained in a poston his website. The second will follow, but there’s enough in the first to warrant notice here.

In the activist dimension of his life – which he always makes clear is an expression of personal opinion and in this respect differentiated from his scientific work – Hansen opposes cap and trade approaches to limiting carbon emissions as ineffective and instead advocates a steadily rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies and returned to the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations.

 

He considers there are signs that China is ready to consider a rising carbon price as part of a clean energy transition. At the Beijing Forum he attended he was impressed by what he described as the focused rational approach to dealing with the challenges, epitomized by Dr. Jiang Kejun (pictured), the lead speaker in the session “Global Environmental Policies and National Strategies”.

“Jiang Kejun laid out sector-by-sector projections of transitions to low-carbon and no-carbon energies and improved energy efficiency that would allow CO2 emission growth to be slowed and then reversed over the next few decades. Technology development is supported, and, when lower carbon technology becomes available, efficiency standards are promptly ratcheted downward. Most encouragingly, there is recognition that this strategy requires a rising carbon price for most successful results. The Chinese authorities appear to grasp that rapid attainment of the tipping points at which clean energies quickly displace dirty energy requires an economic incentive.”

Hansen remarks the advantages of the scale of manufacturing in China. It is so great that the unit price of new technologies can be quickly brought down, putting China in a position to sell carbon-efficient technologies to the rest of the world.

He compares the prevention of effective legislation by vested interests in the US with his impression that China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly. He notes that the leaders seem to seek the best technical information and do not brand as a hoax that which is inconvenient. The power of fossil fuel interests is not as strong as in the US.

Hansen’s earlier view was that global action to stem climate change required agreement between China and the United States for a rising carbon fee. He acknowledges this is not realistic as the dysfunctional Congress would not approve such a treaty.

However, he sees a way around that. He envisages China finding agreement with other nations such as the European Union to impose rising internal carbon fees. And here’s the crunch:

“Existing rules of the World Trade Organization would allow collection of a rising border duty on products from all nations that do not have an equivalent internal carbon fee or tax.”

And the consequence:

“The United States then would be forced to make a choice. It could either address its fossil fuel addiction with a rising carbon fee and supportive national investment policies or it could accept continual descent into second-rate and third-rate economic well-being. The United States has great potential for innovation, but it will not be unleashed as long as fossil fuel interests have a stranglehold on U.S. energy policies.”

Nicholas Stern doesn’t share Hansen’s impatience with emissions trading schemes, but it is worth noting that he sounded very similar trade warnings in Auckland in September where he was delivering the Douglas Robb lectures. The world is embarking on a “new industrial revolution” of renewable energy and cleaner innovation, he told the Herald. Countries which don’t embrace it will find other countries reluctant to trade with them. Ten or fifteen years from now, those that produce in dirty ways are likely to face trade barriers.

However it is obtained, a rising price on carbon is an essential element in the transition to clean energy, and trade concerns may well play a part in making it global. Hansen insists that only a tax can achieve it, but there are indications that China is also considering a cap-and-trade system. Either way contributes to the seriousness Hansen discerns in China’s planning towards the transformation of its currently carbon-dependent economy.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony November 28, 2010 at 8:36 am

If anything should motivate a sense of urgency in Cancun this clip from Aljazeera should be a wake-up call:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTmAyxY6F7g

Anyone for a nice juicy Brasilian steak?

Bryan Walker November 28, 2010 at 9:44 am

Have a post on the Amazon drought under way at present. Alarming, but there are a lot of deaf people in politics.

Dappledwater November 28, 2010 at 6:03 pm

I’ll be interested to see that post Bryan. I’ve done a lot of research on that topic in the last 2 months. Alarming is certainly one word to describe it.

Thomas November 28, 2010 at 4:47 pm

The China article vindicates my own sense that China, despite being a strong current polluter, will be much better equipped to deal with the future challenges due to its rational science led technocracy mixed with a breath taking efficiency in affecting transformation wherever they put their energy.

Compared to this the clowns of the American right (Beck, Palin, Tea Party, Religious nuts, Koch br., …. you name it) are set on a destructive path which will lead their nation into the wilderness…..

Mike Palin November 28, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Thomas-
Unfortunately, the American Right is more criminal than clownish – with the possible exception of “Auntie” Sarah.

However, I will once again strongly disagree with the notion that China is on the road toward anything but maintaining its position as the world’s biggest emitter of GHG. And, unlike the US, it shows no indication of slowing its rate of emission increases. See these articles from the NY Times earlier this year (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/07/business/energy-environment/07energy.html?_r=1&src=busln , http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/science/earth/22fossil.html?ref=coal ).

And let’s remember, China’s “breath taking efficiency in affecting transformation” is possible because it is not a democracy and does not recognise individual human rights. Just ask the thousands of Chineses workers who die each year in its unsafe coal mines!

Thomas November 29, 2010 at 9:37 am

I agree that China has a lot to do. I maintain though that they are in principle better equipped to do so if they were to set their mind to it.

As of human rights: It is the libertarians in the Anglo-Sachson world who are taking the “human rights” to the other extreme: “right or wrong, my personal freedom to enrich myself rules, bugger the consequences and stuff the scientists with their environment mantra…”.

While I would hope that we can come to our senses in the “free world” to do whats right and necessary out of free democratic decisions combined with leadership and vision, the reality is sadly not indicating that this is currently so. Most democracies only managed lip service announcements where leadership into a new economy build on principles of sustainability would have been required. And pressed by tightening economic realities hopes fade that freely elected governments will be able to actually persuade their people to forgo consumption and consumerism on a path to sustainability. To the contrary, the so called “free world” seems to elect the wrong crowd when times get tough – see right wing US election successes of late….

bill November 29, 2010 at 11:58 am

..and I fear that in 2012 the US will elect a President and executive branch so Stupid, and so Dangerous, that we will be forced to re-evaluate Bush Junior and his cronies, much as he made many of us re-evaluate his father’s term in office!

The thing about the democracies seems to be related to the ‘entitled consumer’ attitude to me – the government is obliged to provide me with ‘Liberty’ (I think of it as ‘Libuuurty’!) at the cheapest possible price to me, whereas I feel no obligations whatsoever in return. To anybody or anything.

Citizenship – i.e the idea that you have responsibilities as well as rights, one of which is to be reasonable and moderate in your claims upon the greater community – appears to be an extinct concept.

What we seem to have instead is flag-waving jingoistic nonsense slickly marketed like margarine, increasing xenophobia, and, in the US case, a species of worship of some atomised idea of The Nation while simultaneously deriding and undermining the state and the community it supports. Hard to see it ending well…

R2D2 November 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm

The US isn’t a democracy.

bill November 29, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Well, that was succinct – and something of a surprise!

I essentially agree* – perhaps not for the same reasons – but what concerns me is that many of what I see as the most undemocratic features of the US have been encroaching across the western world, for the most part to a lesser extent to date. But where they go we seem to follow…

*Not that I see them as any kind of a ‘Total’ state, either – in some senses, something more ludicrous! History repeating; first as tragedy, then as farce…

Thomas November 29, 2010 at 12:41 pm

The first enlightened comment from the trusted robotic companion of Luke Skywalker, battling the imperialists…. ;-)

Eco Divad November 29, 2010 at 2:50 pm

The US isn’t a democracy

Ho ho ho – what a joker!

What would you prefer? The USSR model, the EU?

Idiot

R2D2 November 29, 2010 at 3:08 pm

The US is constitutional republic.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutional_republic

In my view this is the best form of Government. In a democracy the majority set the rules. In a republic the government must adhere to the constitution. So they can’t (supposedly) expose people to the tyranny of the majority. If the majority of people want to limit the ability of one religion to congregate in a certain area this can be challenged as unconstitutional.

Thomas November 29, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Democracy requires a free press and a well informed, literate and these days also especially scientifically literate people and a transparently and publicly funded election campaign system.

The US lacks in all of these:
Elections are won through the financial backing of deep pockets.
The press is beholden to business interests and political positions (just think Fox for a moment).
The people (average) rank at the bottom for literacy and certainly in scientific literacy among a long list of nations as you can see here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/bigphotos/21329204.html

So democracy in the USA looks rather like a soap opera dressing on top of a morass of special interests and deep pocket lobbyists and the gridlock of the various levels of government works almost like a design feature to prevent progress and maximize backroom dealing… Most deep pockets give equally to both parties (more to the one behind in the polls) to achieve as close as possible a balanced 50/50 outcome of elections as that maximizes their influence and minimizes the ability of the government to function independently form their paymasters….

Mike Palin November 29, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Sorry, but I have to agree with Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

While China’s CO2 emissions from energy-production have been accelerating, the same from the US have actually dropped over the past 2 years. And not only because of the economic turndown, see http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/environment/emissions/carbon/ .

Thomas November 29, 2010 at 3:26 pm

I am not at all saying that democracy is bad, to the contrary. But as with everything else, democracy too requires good maintenance to work well. The US is an especially bad example of this and has in my view a lot to accomplish in reform of their system (especially election finance and restraint of lobbyists) as well as issues of freedom of press (from business and other special interests) and general education of their people before I would look at them as an example of a well functioning democracy.

R2D2 November 29, 2010 at 3:19 pm

In my view China is a fascist state. People often characterise fascism as extreme right wing. I believe it is extreme nationalism. Where the good of the nation always reigns supreme over the rights of individuals. A polar opposite to libertarianism. So it is neither right wing or left wing but more to do with policies protecting rights. This is what China has been for some time now. I would rather live in a warming world than under a fascist government, so I do not agree with people who hold China up as a model to aspire to.

Thomas November 29, 2010 at 3:37 pm

I am not at all saying that we should aspire to to Chinese political one party communist system.
What I am saying is that they will in my mind have the ability to rapidly progress and adapt to a switch to sustainable ways guided by science and technology because they are not beholden to the libertarians dragging their feet whenever the need of communal action in the wider sense arises. In the anglo sachson world the pendulum has swung to the libertarian corner to the detriment of our ability to organize ourselves towards the bigger picture of the times ahead, which will be dominated by the need of humanity to urgently switch from the current exponential growth paradigm to a steady state and probably down-scale economy capable of survival.

R2D2 November 29, 2010 at 4:46 pm

“the need of humanity to urgently switch from the current exponential growth paradigm to a steady state and probably down-scale economy capable of survival”

And this is why I think a republic is a better system than a democracy. God help us in this country if this opinion ever becomes the majority view point.

Thomas November 29, 2010 at 7:47 pm

So you think we can go on growing exponentially forever on this planet? At which point do you think an economy based on a paradigm on continuous growth will hit the limits?

bill November 29, 2010 at 3:53 pm

That’s an idiosyncratic definition of fascism! However, definitional disputes are always tedious; granted, China is certainly a totalitarian state with many, many repressive features.

I would rather live in a warming world than under a fascist government.

Is this really the point? What happens if one increases the likelihood of the other?

As us democratic warmists have frequently pointed out, the warming world may become increasingly incompatible with the democratic one. Scarcity and crisis are the natural enemies of the (relative) democracies. We may ultimately be faced with a choice between an oppressive stability and chaos, and, Romantic notions aside, people ultimately want to survive.

(The rather similar ‘Better Dead than Red’ was always a ludicrous slogan – as Russell pointed out – after all, you might hope to be cured of Communism, but not of death!)

This brings us back to the citizenship issue I raised above – a bit of restraint now may well save us from a lot of constraint in the future! But because of the fetish made of ‘liberty’ and ‘my rights’ restraint and moderation have become devalued concepts, dishonestly associated with repression in order to justify short-sighted selfishness – marketed as ‘Liberty’ – at the individual and national level.

Thomas November 29, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Most aptly put Bill! This rather nails it. Well done!

R2D2 November 29, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Is it? What is he saying?

I was saying we should try and find solutions that work for free societies. Hopefully this is possible.

Bill is saying that “We may ultimately be faced with a choice between an oppressive stability and chaos”.

Does this mean we should give up a little liberty now for longer term security? This sounds like the argument of tyrant: “You need to give up some freedoms for security”. He goes on to call liberty a “fetish” and somehow implies that those appealing for ‘liberty’ are in fact “selfish” at heart.

My belief is that it is dangerous to seek anything other than an outcome that protects our freedoms in the short term. Freedom is not something that can be given up and then easily regained. Look at the states of the EU as an example.

The argument may seem trivial but it is actually being played out this week in Cancun. The strength of the US republic has prevented a UN agreement that removes the rights of sovereign nations and empowers the UN with a lucrative cash flow. What is now more likely in the long term is an agreement similar to the Copenhagen accord where nations individually take action that together will avert climate change. You may think that a Kyoto style agreement with the US included would be better for the environment so therefore better for the world. But the long term impact could be that the US republic system has ensured climate change is prevented without heading down a dangerous unilateral path.

Sam Vilain November 29, 2010 at 5:31 pm

What is now more likely in the long term is an agreement similar to the Copenhagen accord where nations individually take action that together will avert climate change.

Did I miss the part where you repented from being a denier R2? Welcome to the club! You must really be a skeptic rather than a denier, if you now accept that climate change is a result of our actions. You found the truth eventually. Well done.

R2D2 November 29, 2010 at 11:33 pm

I take a socratean view. I push back on people who talk in absolutes. And think they know more than they do, “and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable”. Some time this may come across as holding the opposite view, when in fact I only disagree that the statement made can really be known.

“To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge. ” – Socrates

nommopilot November 30, 2010 at 9:52 am

“I push back on people who talk in absolutes. And think they know more than they do,”

because you think you know more than them? or because you think if you don’t know something nobody possibly could?

nommopilot November 30, 2010 at 9:57 am

“when in fact I only disagree that the statement made can really be known”
it’s not really that constructive as an approach, though is it? I mean if you actually believe nothing can be known, what is the point of your involvement in any discussion? what useful contribution can you make?

R2D2 November 30, 2010 at 10:04 am

Do you think the following statement would be made by a sceptic?

“These events would not have happened without global warming.” Kevin Trenberth, on David Appell Quark Soup, Sep 2010 on the Russian heat wave and Pakistan flood.

I have no doubt that Trenberth possesses more knowledge on the atmosphere than me. But with the limited knowledge I do have I understand it is not possible to make such an absolute statement on a weather event.

R2D2 November 30, 2010 at 11:00 am

” what is the point of your involvement in any discussion? what useful contribution can you make?”

Good question. Sometimes a devils advocate can just stop a group moving forward. Be an unhelpful roadblock to progress. However I believe when a group suffers from being too like minded a challenge to some of the ideas can be useful.

Thomas November 29, 2010 at 7:54 pm

…like the freedom of to dump the exhaust from our economy into the air, bugger the consequences?
…like the freedom to put off investments into a sustainable energy industry until future generations have to deal with the issue (and the problem is so much bigger) so we can go on feasting a bit longer on the last of the summer oil?
…like the freedom to exploit cheap production methods in countries without environmental protection laws so that WallMart and the RedShed can reap profits?
…like the freedom to socialize the cost and privatize the profits wherever possible?
…like the freedom from paying taxes for the rich so that the country is stuck without effective health care insurance for the poor (USA)?
…like the freedom… you get the jist….

Freedom is like a balance. You take to much for yourself, there is less left for others or for future generations. The cake is no longer growing, the number of hungry mouths is…..
So what freedom are you talking about then?

R2D2 November 29, 2010 at 11:18 pm

I said a constitutional republic is better than a democracy. I said I’d rather live in a free society than China. That doesn’t mean I believe in zero environmentalism. Or not internalising the cost of externalities where they are clear. Or socialism in order to ensure that every child has access to healthcare, education, safe housing, and a safe environment. In fact if New Zealand became a republic those are things that should be enshrined in the constitution and protected by it. My libertarian side says that the government should not get so large that it holds middle income earners down and prevents them from attaining economic freedom, which at about 45% of GDP I think the NZ govt does. But all in all I believe my political opinions to be balanced.

Where I differ from you is probably on the response to climate change. I believe the National party response has been largely a good one. It is a unique problem because it is a global commons and because it is associated with such an important part of our lives (fossil fuel use and agriculture). The ozone issue was a global issue but we could quite easily adjust. This is a tougher challenge.

‘Internalising the cost’ is not the answer because the costs are themselves not uniform (the cost that an ETS puts on an emiter is the abatement cost, not the damage cost). It is estimated that the marginal cost of a emissions of CO2 is currently about $2-$5 US dollars a tonne. But such a cost would not cause significant mitigation or investment. And we recognise that developing countries have a responsibility to act first, so no global tax is fair. But at teh same time a NZ only tax would just result in NZ economic pain and no global emissions reductions due to emissions leakage. So an ETS with allocation on an intensity basis is a useful way of creating a marginal cost of ~$20 (assuming no 2 for 1 deal) without destroying the competitiveness of NZ firms. And the 2-for-1 deal is a useful way of taking small steps until the US and others follow suit.

Not everyone agrees. Its not to the speed you would suggest. Its not perfect. But its better than having to live under a command and control government (in my opinion, which I’m free to express).

bill November 29, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Those who call for ‘Liberty’ in this day and age are almost universally fetishists – at least in the western world. Randian ideologues for the most part.

And you are a classic example. After I point out that your tribe deliberately chooses to conflate any restraint, no matter how rational, with a repressive lack of ‘liberty’ you proceed to do that very thing! Better watch someone doesn’t accuse you of being ‘Relegious’!

I wasn’t aware that the EU had already sunk into some totalitarian abyss. This belief seems to be an article of faith among deniers. It strikes me as plain silly. Or are you also conflating the liberty of states – not to be oppressed by nasty collective agreements, whether rational or clearly called-for – with the liberty of peoples (who might well wish to dwell in liveable environments) here?

If this is your idea of tyranny, as I’ve said before, you need to get out more!

And do you really mean –

But the long term impact could be that the US republic system has ensured climate change is prevented without heading down a dangerous unilateral path.

?

One – they won’t. There’s not a snowball’s chance in a burning rainforest. You did actually pay attention to the result of the last US mid-term election, didn’t you?

Two, of late it seems the US is always pursuing ‘a dangerous unilateral path’. Was this a Freudian error?

And I’m afraid this last means we get to award you this week’s tin-foil hat.

The strength of the US republic has prevented a UN agreement that removes the rights of sovereign nations and empowers the UN with a lucrative cash flow

adelady November 29, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Oh I’m not sure that’s a universal rule. Dig for victory and rationing of food, fuel and everything else worked pretty well in countries fighting fascism a generation ago.

And rationing of building materials and of gas supplies (town gas) lasted into the early 50s in South Australia. No-one thought their freedoms were being “violated” – it was just an irritation. (Sometimes more. The three years it took to build our house caused quite a few tears and vastly extended the 3 families under one (small) roof living conditions at my granny’s house.)

If there’s a good reason for it, people will cooperate and put up with quite a lot – so long as everyone else has to do the same. Even the richest people here were restricted to a 1000 sq ft house during the building restrictions. Having money just meant that they were able to enlarge their houses as soon as the restrictions were lifted.

MrSmith November 28, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Unfortunately Mike the rest of the world is to PC. We tend to doubt everything , organized religion plays a big part in the spreading of doubt as doubt is all most religions have left in the face of science. The Chinese tho don’t have to consult the people they just act. They are mostly Buddhists also. So when things go wrong I suspect they don’t all run down to the church and pray like most of the deluded fool in the rest of world, they just get on with it.
All power to the Chinese I say. They might yet be the only chance we have of saving the planet , I am not saying they will pollute less than the rest of the world but when the shit starts hitting the fan they will be able to act and hopefully the rest of us will follow

Le Chat Noir November 28, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Ms Hill interviewed MIT’s Dan Nocera on Saturday. His strategy is to drive down the cost of artificial photosynthesis and produce an affordable fuel cell that can be used by the 3 million and growing poor people in legacy free India, Africa and rural China to produce distributed, fossil free energy. He is partnered up with India’s Tata Corp. Worth a listen – here’s the mp3: http://podcast.radionz.co.nz/sat/sat-20101127-1110-Dan_Nocera_the_future_of_energy-048.mp3

Bryan Walker November 29, 2010 at 8:48 am

Thanks for drawing attention to it Le Chat Noir. I’ve just listened with intense interest.

Thomas November 29, 2010 at 10:05 am

After listening to it I realized that Kim Hill needs a science adviser to assist her in preparing for chats with people like Nocera…. ;-)

Despite the cheap electrolyzer catalyst Nocera invented, the general issues with the H2 economy remain: storing significant amounts of H2 remains inefficient and very expensive. Fuel Cells are expensive. The overall efficiency of the Light->Power->H2O Split->H2 Storage->Fuel Cell->Power->Useful work chain of process is still questionable. But I loved Nocera’s focus on sorting out the needs of the poor as he rightly points out that it is much easier to establish something new where there is no legacy base to deal with.

In the software industry we had this joke: How come it takes years to build the next version of Windows while God could create the world in 7 days? Answer: God did not have to deal with an installed legacy base…..

Mike Palin November 29, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Dan Nocera is a favourite of mine. Here are 2 vodcasts from the last several years: http://www.poptech.org/popcasts/dan_nocera_personalized_energy
http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/518/

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