Civil unrest can stop many things but not another UN climate change conference. But as climate wonks prepare for Madrid, there are unwelcome rumblings from China.
Because autocracies are not that responsive to public opinion, they can sometimes act faster and more transparently than squabbling democrats.
And that is what China’s government appears to be doing, executing a “U-turn on renewables” according to the Financial Times. Subsidies for non-carbon energy have been slashed. Investment in ‘clean’ energy, which peaked at $150 billion during 2017, fell to $29 billion in the first half of this year.
This is more than a local problem. In recent years, China’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have rocketed and the country now emits more than one-quarter of the global total. It signed up to the 2015 Paris Accords on the basis that its emissions could keep rising until 2030, but with the hope that it might tighten its targets in 2020. That is looking riskier by the day, even without accounting for China’s huge investment in coal-fired plants in other countries with similar Paris emissions pathways.
It’s all in the economics. According to the Financial Times, the new policy focuses on grid parity; that is wind and solar only go ahead if they are competitive with coal generated power.
That may be getting harder. Much of the low cost stuff and – luckily for politicians – non-transparent stuff has already been done. Now it is necessary to drive further down the cost curve while finding ways to deal with the high costs of intermittency and storage.
What is increasingly on offer is expensive and unpalatable: expensive home heating systems and highly priced electric cars with short range and long charging times (imagine trying to get that 2 hour charge on Auckland anniversary weekend).
Technological innovation has done wonders so far and might still save the day – but it’s a big ask – and probably getting bigger.
China’s problems spill over into the global arena. The Paris agreement works on the basis that the rich Western countries spend a lot of money to slash their emissions while the less rich, like China, make a dash for carbon-fuelled growth.
Western electorates have been a little slow to acknowledge their promised contribution to global social justice. But if countries like China look like breaking their generous carbon bounds, they might feel even stingier.
A lot can change in a (relatively) short time. Climate scientist Judith Curry gives a perceptive snapshot of the evolution of the climate change debate on the tenth anniversary of the ‘Climategate’ revelations.
For the lay reader, she gives a very nice summary of the current array of forces:
“‘Skeptics’ these days are generally defined by ‘lukewarmerism’ (e.g. climate sensitivity on the low end of the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC] range), a focus on historical and paleo data records, and a focus on natural climate variability. Skeptics frequently cite the IPCC reports. Skeptics generally support nuclear energy and natural gas, but are dubious of rapid expansion of wind and solar and biofuels.
Scientists on the ‘warm’ side of the spectrum think that IPCC is old hat and too conservative/cautious (see esp Naomi Oreskes’ new book); in short, insufficiently alarming. The ‘alarmed’ scientists are focused on attributing extreme weather to [Anthropogenic Global Warming] (heeding Steve Schneider’s ‘wisdom’), and also in generating implausible scenarios of huge amounts of sea level rise. As a result, consensus of the 97% is less frequently invoked.”
She notes the shift in climate warrior objectives towards “social justice” and thus away from pure climate policy, and the accompanying drift of action from the blogosphere to street movements:
“ … we have Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement on one hand, and the yellow jackets and related movements on the other hand. These are populist movements (although apparently with some big $$ backing, esp for Extinction Rebellion). The zombie stuff of the Extinction Rebellion makes me nostalgic for the relative rationality of Greenpeace versus CEI.”
The sceptics, in her view, have two things on their side – time and economics. Factors that encourage her to believe in an eventual rational outcome include:
- energy engineering realities;
- growing concerns about energy reliability and security;
- the climate itself (even with huge 2016, the temperatures are not keeping pace with the CMIP5 predictions);
- at some point, a spate of La Nina events, a shift to the cold phase of the AMO, increased volcanic activity, impacts of a solar minimum and another ‘hiatus’ are inevitable; and
- “bonkers” climate models that do such a poor job of simulating the temperatures since 1950 that it is difficult to take seriously their 21st century projections.
Do read the whole thing.
While “ideas that are genuinely irrational eventually burn themselves out as reality bites”, she notes this can take a long time. But the more it costs, the quicker the blaze is likely to spread.