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.

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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.

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