China "Going Out"

Is China really showing ‘leadership’ on tackling climate change?

Beijing played the Paris climate agreement for money and kudos. But no country that ratified the agreement was in it to win the war on global warming, says Patricia Adams, executive director of Probe International, in this radio interview with the Australian current affairs program, Counterpoint.

Speaking to Australian foreign policy analyst Tom Switzer, Patricia Adams of Probe International explains why curbing its use of fossil fuels would put Beijing’s desire to stop air pollution at risk.

A transcript of this interview, aired by Counterpoint on October 31, an Australian current affairs radio program, follows below.

TS [Tom Switzer]: Green China is leading the world on climate change. Recently, the Paris climate accord to slash global emissions was ratified by Beijing and Washington and will officially come into force soon. The joint ratification occurred on the eve of the G20 summit in Hangzhou and was hailed by activists and world leaders alike as a milestone in the battle against global warming. Barack Obama said China was leading by example in its commitment to emissions abatement. Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed to “unwaveringly pursue sustainable growth”. To do so would be conducive to Beijing’s development interests. And why wouldn’t it be? After all, if you accept the prevailing narrative: China’s abysmal air quality will improve if it cuts its carbon emissions. Tackling climate change, we’re told, will help the Communist party clean up China’s notoriously polluted cities and improve the health of the country’s population. What does Beijing have to lose?

Well, according to my next guest, quite a lot. And, if anything, China is chugging along the smoky path to prosperity. Patricia Adams is the executive director of Probe International, that’s an independent think tank in Canada. She was a co-founder of the World Rainforest Movement and the International River’s Network, and she’s the author of “The Truth about China” — that’s a report published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London.

Now, China’s vowed to peak its growing carbon emissions by 2030. Yet experts are saying that the changing economic and energy landscape in China will help the nation’s emissions to peak by 2025 at the latest. Does that show that Beijing’s way ahead of the game?

PA [Patricia Adams]: No. I think Beijing has a very clear idea about what they want to do, how they want to develop, and more specifically, the Communist party has two existential threats: one is if they don’t keep economic growth going then they know they’re in trouble with their own people. There’s a sort of unwritten agreement, or understanding, that they can continue to rule the country in an autocratic way as long as they create jobs. The second problem that they have is smog and pollution in general, but air pollution in particular is the most threatening one to most people. So they’ve got to keep growth going and they also have to clean up their air. Now, when they’re going to peak their CO2 levels is really anybody’s guess but it’s certainly not a priority for them. Pew has done surveys of China, in fact there’s one that came out very recently. They have found that China has the lowest percentage of people of any country that cares about global warming. They just don’t care about global warming in China and, therefore, the Communist party doesn’t care. That said, they’re under a lot of international pressure to clean up their air and CO2 emissions.

Emissions will continue to escalate because, in order to create jobs, they have to burn fossil fuels. The question really is how do they burn those fossil fuels? They burn them in a very dirty way and that’s of course what creates the air pollution and is killing so many people.

TS: Air pollution is estimated to kill half a million people a year. Curtailing China’s use of fossil fuels would actually compromise Beijing’s desire to reduce air pollution. Now that sounds counterintuitive. Explain why.

PA: If you focus on CO2 — if the Chinese government were to focus on reducing CO2 levels — how can they do it? Well, they can do it by switching energy consumption away from fossil fuels and at the moment 90 percent of China’s energy comes from fossil fuels. Well, what are they going to switch to? Hydro dams — they pretty much maxed out in building hydro dams on their rivers. Solar — hmmm. Solar accounts for a tiny, tiny proportion of their energy supply. Wind — also a small proportion. Nuclear, of course, they have a massive expansion program to expand nuclear. Well, there’s a lot of public opposition in China to nuclear power plants as well. So they don’t really have a lot of options for getting off fossil fuel. Their goal is to get to 80% of total energy use but that’s the equivalent of what the rest of the world uses. A lot of these options are very insignificant and they’re also very expensive. Putting a lot of energy into trying to find alternatives, they’re going to be diverting attention away from the most effective ways of cleaning up the air. And that involves, for example, putting scrubbers on smokestacks. Scrubbers are very effective. They use more fossil fuels to run which means that although you get cleaner air in terms of NOx and SOx and mercury and so on, you produce actually more CO2. So, in order to clean up the air they’re going to produce more CO2 using scrubbers. Another way to do this is to switch from the dirtier fossil fuels to the cleaner fossil fuels and China is trying to do that. One of the ways that they’re doing it is by taking coal in the western provinces and converting it into Syngas and then what they want to do is pipe that Syngas, that’s synthetic gas, into the cities which they would use to generate electricity in a much cleaner way. The problem is that once you convert coal into gas you produce more CO2 than if you were just burning the coal. Environmentalists don’t like the Syngas producing more CO2.

TS: China keeps limiting its coal use — we keep hearing — capping coal consumption by 2020, a three-year moratorium on new coal mines …

PA: They are to a certain extent trying to shut down the teapot coal mines not controlled by big state-owned enterprises, which really have a grip on the Chinese economy. They have approved 155 new coal-fired generating facilities and have internationally invested in 79-80 coal-generating facilities throughout the developing world. It’s full steam ahead on coal.

The Chinese economy is extremely inefficient in its use of energy. It takes three times the amount of energy to produce a unit of GDP than it does in the U.S., five times as much as the Japanese economy. The leadership recognizes this. But all of these investments in more efficient coal-fired facilities means that you’re locking the country into using coal in the future.

TS: The Paris deal — why are they wrong?

PA: Really, all of the countries that are signatories to it want a lot of wiggle room. They all want to appear to be green yet not to have to make any firm commitments that anyone can hold them to. Indeed, the former head of the UN Commission said there are no environmental police, so all of these countries can pontificate, they can promise all kinds of things in the Paris agreement and then five years later they can say, “Well, we tried and it didn’t work.” Something else that I think is important to recognize is that the Paris agreement would not have happened without China. China was pivotal as the largest producer of CO2 in the world, it was absolutely essential to get them on board. China knew that, the U.S. knew that, Europe knows that. So China played it for all they could. They demanded $100 billion be given to the developing world and that China would help spend it and, of course, a lot of that money would be spent on technologies that would be purchased in China and sent to the developing world. For example, windmills and solar panels and so on, and they would get a lot of the money themselves. So it’s really a cash grab, I think, by the developing countries and China led them all in the Paris agreement. But, at the same time, the industrialized countries would have had to go home empty-handed if they couldn’t have brought China along so they had to make concessions to China in order not to have to go back to their own people and say, “Sorry, we’re going to let the planet burn,” as they said would happen. So really the Chinese had everybody else over a barrel.

All of the countries signing onto it are playing a game. The Chinese government gets a lot of kudos from signing it, internationally, as well as money. Many of their industries have been threatened, exports too, threatened by CO2 tariffs placed on steel and so on because industrialized countries would argue that their exports are too CO2 intensive.

TS: Your critics will respond to your thesis and insist that climate change represents such a grave threat to humanity that the world has no choice but to come together to end fossil fuels entirely. Is history on their side?

PA: No. It’s not on their side. Countries that have developed in the last 200, to 300-400 years have done so because of the use of fossil fuel. Fossil fuels have empowered our economies, to raise standards of living, to provide jobs for people. The key here is to use fossil fuels cleanly and that requires research, public opinion, public pressure to ensure these fossil fuels are used cleanly and, when I say cleanly, to get rid of the emissions that come out of them that kill people. These are the NOx and the SOx and the ozone and the mercury and arsenic and so on. CO2 is not a killer. I’m an environmentalist and have been doing this for 35 years, and all forms of energy have environmental problems. Hydro dams have caused untold damage in countries like China. Nuclear power is of grave concern to many, many people around the world. I think it behooves us all, as environmentalists, to be clear and to look at the different forms of energy and say, “Let’s rank the dangers here.” I don’t think CO2 is as dangerous as some of the other forms of energy. It may be a problem, we have to keep a watch on it, but I don’t think it solves any problem by saying we’ve got to eliminate fossil fuels. First of all, I don’t think it’s going to happen, that we’re going to get down to zero fossil fuels; certainly not in any foreseeable future. Second of all, what about the alternatives that are being proposed? They also cause environmental problems and I think that we have to acknowledge that and we have to take it into account in our risk assessments.

Counterpoint is a weekly current affairs radio program that is broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National.

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