Positive News on Developing World Response to Climate Change

China and to a lesser degree India have been forcefully asserting the right to pollute as much per capita as the US in the pursuit of economic development. However, the signs of climate change are already sufficiently advanced in their countries that, despite the combattive posturing, officials recognize that these countries too will have to find ways to use energy more efficiently and reduce carbon emissions.

From a story in the Financial Times, “China and India face up to curbs on carbon:”

Beijing’s eerily mild winter has provoked anxious media coverage in the Chinese capital. In India, the melting of the Himalayan glaciers that feed the country’s great river systems is alarming policymakers. The world’s two fastest-growing large economies are growing increasingly conscious of the global warming in which their rapid development is playing a part….

After a quarter-century of improvements, China’s surge of investment in heavy industry and power capacity since 2000 has seen energy efficiency levels retreat and pollution measurements soar. China added power capacity last year equal to the entire grids of the UK and Thailand combined, 90 per cent of it coal-fired, to feed its growing stack of steel, aluminium and cement plants and the like.

By 2009, says the International Energy Agency, China will have overtaken the US as the largest emitter of the portion of greenhouse gases that are energy-related….

Although China and India acknowledge their emissions are rising, they argue that, per capita, they remain a tiny fraction of those from developed countries. Moreover, China’s cumulative emissions are only one-third of those of the US and one-sixth of those of all the developed countries grouped in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to the World Bank. The cumulative emissions of India, which has a higher energy efficiency rate than China, are about one-tenth those of the US.

The initial reaction in both countries to international pressure has been to point to the refusal of the US and rich fellow-travellers such as Australia to sign the Kyoto protocol for mandatory emissions caps….

Gao Guangsheng, the director of China’s Climate Change Co-ordination Office, pointedly singled out Australia, population 20m, at a recent conference in Nairobi, saying that if it had as many people as China’s 1.3bn, its carbon emissions would total 8.6bn tonnes a year. China’s emissions are now about 1.3bn tonnes a year.

“China uses coal not because we love coal but because that is the resource we have,” he said.

The US and Australia in turn cite China and to some extent India to justify their own refusal to move on the issue, arguing that new caps are pointless until Beijing and New Delhi come on board….

China is in the crosshairs of the global community more so than India because its economy has grown faster than that of its neighbour, is more reliant on heavy industry and is thus more energy intensive. In recognition of the problem, China’s top leaders have set stringent numerical targets for improving energy efficiency per unit of economic output by 4 per cent annually in the five years from 2006. So far, however, they have failed to meet the benchmark, an embarrassment for Beijing as it was one of only two numerical targets in the latest five-year economic plan….

Both China and India suffer from acute air and water pollution. In 83 Indian cities for which air quality monitoring data are available, more than 84 per cent of the population was in 2004 forced to inhale poor, bad or dangerous air. Only 3 per cent had access to air that was rated good. China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, with dirty air causing the premature deaths of 400,000 people a year. About 340m people, about one-quarter of the population, do not have access to clean water.

With such pressing short-term issues on the desks of central and local government leaders, the ability of the political system to tackle global warming may be limited, even if the urgency is recognised. “If China can’t even get traction on cleaning up the water supply, it is difficult to see how it can get traction on this,” says Ms Lin.

Still, both China and India are clearly concerned about climate change for their own sakes, let alone the impact on the rest of the world. In China, scientists warn that the impact of rising temperatures on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau could alter the amount of water flowing into the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, which originate in the region. The same sort of impact may be felt in key Indian river systems. Glacial melt would lead to increased summer flows in some directions for a few decades, followed by a reduction as glaciers disappear.

India’s agricultural productivity, already flagging, is thought likely to suffer because of high temperatures, drought, flood and soil degradation. The Chinese media have cited similar scenarios, including a fall in grain output by 10 per cent a year from 2030. Such threats run counter to the maintenance of food security, which both governments prize.

This means, as in the developed world, that both industry and consumers will need to be cajoled to change their ways. “It is the unbridled luxury consumption of its affluent classes that is driving the giddy rise in India’s greenhouse gas emissions,” maintains Praful Bidwai, a social and economic commentator. “The majority of Indians remain as frugal as ever in their use of resources. This makes it imperative that India move towards accepting deep cuts in emissions, in particular those relating to private vehicles, the profligate use of energy and water by the rich and the skyrocketing consumption of air conditioners, washing machines, microwave ovens and plasma and liquid crystal display television sets.”

The more industrial China is eyeing fuels such as coalbed methane. Extracting methane from China’s bountiful coal reserves can transform a dirty, carbon-heavy by-product of a dangerous mining industry into a relatively clean and potentially competitive fuel.

In both countries, traditional coal fuels will still be the dominant source of energy in 2020. But nearly all of the energy-consuming products that will be in existence by then have yet to be manufactured, giving the two governments scope to encourage citizens and businesses to choose efficient examples of goods such as refrigerators, air conditioners and boilers.

A Beijing-based economist says he has a simple message he uses to remind Chinese officials of the urgency of the issue. “There are a lot of low-lying areas in China,” he says. “And if the Greenland ice caps melt, [landlocked] Mongolia will have a coastline.”

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