It's been a big week for climate change - but don't believe all the hype

The announcements by the Americans and Chinese are actually distinctly unambitious. It’s time for leaders to lead and propagate the facts: Climate action promotes prosperity.

Share

Apparently, this has been a big week for climate action.  On Monday, President Obama announced that the US will seek to cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 per cent by 2030. On Tuesday, China, the world's biggest emitter of carbon pollution, abruptly announced it will set an absolute cap on its CO2 emissions from 2016. China has never before put absolute limits on its pollution and its CO2 emissions are up a catastrophic 50 per cent since 2005 - without a cap on China’s emissions climate change simply can’t be stopped.

If China does cap its emissions, this, together with President Obama’s strong climate action move, signals a potential turning point in the fight against global warming.  Or does it?

Once the excitement calms down, President Obama’s announcement may come to be viewed as exceedingly unambitious.  Emissions from US coal and gas plants have already decreased 12 per cent since 2005, in part because of the recent global recession and in part because of the rise of US shale gas.  Extrapolating this trend, emissions from the power sector would fall some 40 per cent by 2030, more than President Obama’s plan. 

China’s announcement is similarly pragmatic when one takes into account the current reality of its energy markets.  According to a report released by Carbon Tracker: “China’s policies in addressing domestic challenges, most notably air pollution and water scarcity, and increasingly competitive clean technology energy solutions are reducing demand and creating overcapacity in China’s coal market”.  While coal accounts for some 65 per cent of China’s overall energy consumption, and China alone accounts for almost half of global coal consumption, the fundamentals of coal consumption in China are changing, and for the better.

The announcements from the US and China are taking place in a critical year for climate action.  First, on September 23, 2014, world leaders will gather in New York City for a climate summit organized by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.  This will be the first time since Copenhagen in 2009 that world leaders gather to discuss what climate action the world can collectively take.  Second, in early 2015, countries plan to unveil new domestic climate action plans for the period beyond 2020.  These national plans will determine the world’s overall climate ambition through 2025 or 2030. 

These two forthcoming developments will set our climate trajectory for years, so the next few months represent the most important period in international climate politics. 

The moves from the US and China are promising signals that could indicate a shift in gear from governments; but we need much more to limit global warming to 2 degrees, as promised by nations at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. 

But the US and Chinese moves are also distinctly unambitious for political reasons: Leaders continue to be mired in a mistaken narrative about climate action leading to job cuts and costing enormous sums.  It’s time for leaders to lead and propagate the facts:  Climate action promotes prosperity. 

The climate movement must focus its message on people, not animals or things, highlighting the scale of present and future human suffering if we don’t act.  This should be combined with a strong positive narrative from world leaders, who know that climate policies and solutions are cheap.  The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has shown that virtually decarbonizing the entire global economy by the end of the century costs a mere 0.06 percent of global GDP a year, which, as Paul Krugman has noted, is a trivial rounding error. 

In the early years, when we can focus on the policies that produce the most benefits outside climate control, climate action is likely to accelerate economic growth.  For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that its plan to cut power emissions by 30% could produce net benefits to the US economy of up to £50 billion.  A stronger cut would have produced more economic benefits, not less. 

Similarly, amending the Montreal Protocol to phase-down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) - dangerous climate pollutants thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide used around the world as refrigerant in homes, offices and vehicles, even though affordable and safe alternatives exist – is the largest, quickest and cheapest climate solution available today. Moreover, it doesn’t lose jobs or negatively impact growth. Methane capture regulations cost next to nothing, and force oil and gas companies to create jobs and generate clean energy instead of venting gases freely into the atmosphere.  Global renewable jobs hit almost 6.5 million in 2013, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency and these are on a strong upward trend.  Energy efficiency measures can pay for themselves.  And so on.  

Sensible climate policy today is pro-growth and pro-health. While two of the globe’s biggest polluters have pledged to limit their carbon emissions, the significance of this should not be overestimated. Instead of focusing on grandiose and politically fuelled commitments, it is time to rephrase the debate. World leaders should work together to replace the old narrative of sacrifice, burden and uncertainty with the new climate facts of opportunity and prosperity.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links