Greg Sheridan: China is the real winner of Western climate politics The Australian, 17 June 2021
The future of global greenhouse gas emissions will not be determined by G7 countries but by developing countries, which have shown almost no interest in imposing any cost on their development to meet climate targets.
The G7 meeting was a genuine success for Scott Morrison and for the West generally. As Boris Johnson says, “the West is back”. However, there was also a good deal of make-believe, fantasy fairyland about the G7. The only leader who spoke with any realism on climate change was Morrison himself. Seeking emissions reductions through technology is the only possible path to a useful outcome.
The G7’s goal is zero net emissions by 2050. The term “net zero” itself is a kind of magic conjuring term. If you have human life you will have emissions. Modern life means a lot of emissions. The only way you can get to a fictional net zero – a modern equivalent of the alchemist’s ambition to transform lead into gold – is by offsetting all emissions, yes all emissions, with matching reductions. For every tonne of greenhouse gas you emit, you must take one out of the atmosphere. So far the only way you do this is by transforming formerly agricultural land to tree planting. But the world still has to eat, so you pretty soon run out of agricultural land.
The unreality of much of the G7 palaver on this comes in much earlier. The Chinese are right when they say small groups of nations can no longer dictate what happens in the world. The Western commentariat still seems to think that the world consists of New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris.
But here are some facts. China alone accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole of the G7. The broad structure of emissions growth and decline is that rich nations’ emissions are stable or declining, those in developing nations are rising. The US’s emissions have declined 15 per cent since 2005. Australia’s by 19 per cent.
According to UN and World Resources Institute figures, between 2005 and 2018 China’s emissions increased by more than 70 per cent, India’s by just under 70 per cent, Indonesia’s by nearly 40 per cent. This pattern applies across the developing world.
The future of global greenhouse gas emissions will not be determined by G7 countries but by developing countries, which have shown almost no interest in imposing any cost on their development to meet climate targets. As a
country develops it urbanises, uses a lot of steel and concrete, seeks the cheapest energy for manufacturing, mechanises agriculture. All this means massive rises in greenhouse gas emissions.
Let me illustrate how G7, Davos-man style make-believe works. Last week The Economist magazine ran an editorial which said, in part: “… countries accounting for over 70 per cent of world GDP and greenhouse gases now have targets for net zero emissions, typically by 2050”.
This sentence, while not containing an outright falsehood, is nonetheless profoundly misleading in a way that is wholly representative of the make believe of this debate. To get to this figure The Economist has to include China, which accounts for just under 30 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. Beijing has, indeed, nominated a target date for zero net emissions. And that target is 2060, nearly 40 years away. In the meantime, China has said it will reach peak emissions by 2030, nearly a decade away.
And if Beijing doesn’t meet either or both of these targets, who will sue it, and before what court? So what is it doing right now? As Morrison repeatedly points out, and he’s the only national leader who ever does, it’s vastly more important what a nation does than what it says. Certainly Beijing has installed a lot of renewable energy. But consider these following China statistics which I take from a recent article in Yale Environment 360. China’s carbon emissions increased by 4 per cent in the second half of 2020 (notwithstanding Covid), just as they increased in 2018 and 2019.
In 2019, just under 60 per cent of China’s total energy came from coal. I remember being sharply reproved by fellow panellist, the splendid Annabel Crabb, the last time I was on the ABC’s Insiders for saying that coal was continuing to boom. No, she said, she had statements from Western mining executives saying coal was on the way out. But politically correct statements are infinitely less important than facts.
So what are the facts? In 2020, China brought 38.4 gigawatts of new coal fired power into operation. As the Yale article points out, this is three times as much as came into operation anywhere else. Although the Yale article doesn’t mention this, India, Indonesia and many other developing nations also have extensive plans for new coal-fired power stations. China’s new coal-fired power last year was more than twice Australia’s entire coal-fired power.
As the Yale article spells out, Beijing has 247 gigawatts of coal power in planning or development. That’s more than the entire American coal fleet
and some six times Germany’s total coal capacity today. Chinese provinces last year approved 47 gigawatts of new coal-fired power projects.
In China’s current five-year plan, the total of all non-fossil fuel power, including all the renewables plus its sizeable nuclear sector, will grow to just 20 per cent of the national power total. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that China’s main economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, had limited the scope of the ever elusive national carbon trading system, which has still not gone into operation, though we have been hearing about it for years and years on ABC climate programs as though it were an established and fully operating system.
Most of the Western media so desperately wants the dominant climate narrative – especially the bit where the West is the villain – to be true that they simply do not interrogate the facts. The pro-renewables REN21 policy network reported this week that the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix is about the same today as it was a decade ago.
How can this possibly be so if the whole world has been moving on climate change, as we are so often told, and only we Australians have been lagging wickedly behind? The problem is the world has not been moving much and we have certainly not been lagging behind. Most movement that has occurred is simply that heavy industry has been transferred from rich nations to developing nations where it takes place under more lax environmental regulation and thereby produces more greenhouse emissions.
Morrison has to say and do enough that we don’t become subject to some ridiculous European carbon tariff, but at the same time don’t bankrupt ourselves. Meanwhile, China will develop its economy, and its military, free of these restraints. Let’s at least face reality.