Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Australia, China and Climate Change

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made ratifying the Kyoto protocol on climate change his first official act after his inauguration last week. Mr Rudd is reported as saying "Australia’s official declaration today that we will become a member of the Kyoto protocol is a significant step forward in our country’s efforts to fight climate change domestically – and with the international community". Mr Rudd will also be one of only six heads of government expected to attend the Bali conference on Climate Change. Some commentators have noted that his signature was largely symbolic, as Australia is one of the few developed countries likely to meet its Kyoto targets due to its shift away from coal. Nonetheless, the environment was one of the two main areas of difference between the incoming Labor Party and the conservative coalition under former PM John Howard and assumed its importance in part due to Mr Howard's perceived intransigence in not signing up to Kyoto, as well as due to the prolonged droughts in much of Australia.

Clearly this ratification is to be welcomed, even though it is 10 years (yesterday!) since the Kyoto protocol was first agreed. The US is now the only major country not to have ratified the treaty, which requires developed countries to cut their CO2 emissions but imposes no targets for developing countries.

We do not have the luxury of another ten years in which to prevaricate, and squabble among ourselves about which countries should do what. And yet, we see this happening in Bali at the moment, with China and the USA involved in some sort of game of chicken, trying to be the last to cross the road towards making meaningful emissions reductions.

While this brinkmanship is going on, emissions are continuing to rise globally, with China - in particular - continuing to build new power stations. The Financial Times estimates that this year around 90GW of new coal fired capacity will be opened in China (although perhaps 15% of this will replace older smaller and often illegal stations. This comes on the back of 102GW opened in China last year - an all-time record.

It would be wrong of us in the West though, to focus too much on China. Certainly, much of the dirty electricity generated is then used in inefficient manufacturing, compounding the problem. The Chinese admit that this additional coal-fired capacity would not be entirely needed if their burgeoning manufacturing industry was more energy efficient. But part of the reason that it is inefficient is due to an escalating demand for inexpensive products by the very countries in the West, such as the UK, that are complaining about its rising emissions. As we go to the shops this Christmas and load our baskets with cheap Chinese goods, we should remember that there is a high carbon cost as well as the low financial cost that we see.

To bring this full circle, China and Australia are both Pacific nations, joined loosely through APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). The world is shifting away from Europe and the Americas in the 21st century; let's hope that the new realism about climate change in Australia can spread around the Pacific Rim.

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