Krugman weighs in: Time to get optimistic on Greenhouse?

I was struck by Krugman’s column on greenhouse. I’ve been working myself up into a lather of pessimism on greenhouse. Not only is this a really really hard problem to solve, but the way we’re going about solving it is just so awful from so many perspectives, it’s hard to innumerate all the problems. But the central problem, it seems to me, is that we’re developing massively dysfunctional international institutions to deal with the problem. Start by giving all signatories to the UNFCCC equal votes in determining UNFCCC ‘policy’ or resolutions and then exempt all but a small few from binding commitments.

What do you think might happen? Well the unbound will call for stronger commitments from the bound. And so it’s been going on – for twenty years now. The developing countries have remained intransigent, and the greenies are so wedded to the politics of victimhood that this is a truth that dare not speak it’s name. It’s always about ‘us’ – the developed countries.

Meanwhile the developed countries like to talk tough, but there’s plenty of evidence that the kind of long range targets to which they’re committing themselves are the same kinds of targets to which countries have routinely committed themselves – only to completely ignore them – like the Brandt Commission targets on aid, or dare I say it the latest round of commitments in which we all have rock concerts designed to make poverty history.

Meanwhile in Australia we have locked ourselves into the follies of trying to compensate industries for their emissions of carbon . . . Now if you know anything about economics you know that this undermines the whole point of an ETS. The only way in which one might justify provision of compensatory permits to trade exposed emissions intensive industries is that Australia feels so altruistic towards the rest of the world that it’s prepared to sacrifice some of its well-being to prevent the environmental harm of lower gas production in WA (and implicitly higher coal fired emissions in the region). But we’ll be paying for it – by handing over permits when the most efficient thing we can do (from our own perspective) is to let the plants be closed or mothballed. This is all being defended, not on the grounds of altruism, but on the grounds of protecting Australia’s competitiveness (if ‘Australia’s competitiveness’ means anything, subsidising carbon intensive exports lowers our competitiveness – by taxing all other exports to pay these subsidies).

Then there’s the nonsense from the developing countries of ‘you created this mess, so you should pay to clean it up’. We (the west) created a whole lot more economic value than we destroyed in burning carbon – all the knowhow since the industrial revolution. So that’s not bad as a bit of compensation.

Anyway, perhaps my pessimism is partly the product of being Australian, of coming from a little country that doesn’t kid itself that it has much influence on the rest of the world. Krugman swallows the ‘you created the mess’ line to the extent of accepting that the current situation where we’ve got to pollute the planet is ‘unfair’ and he’s very optimistic about making progress on greenhouse. I agree with him that we should be prepared to impose sanctions on the Chinese (and the Indians) if necessary, thought it’s not the kind of thought that springs naturally to an Australian’s mind.

But even though it’s nice to read Krugman’s optimism, I’m afraid I think it’s a false dawn. How aggressive will Obama be able to be and get stuff through Congress? More ambitious than Australia? I doubt it. And while I think Australia’s position is pretty reasonable in terms of the emissions reductions we’re committed to by 2020 given existing emissions, I doubt we’ll meet the target and it isn’t really enough anyway.

Anyway, here’s hoping I’m dead wrong.

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15 years ago

You would have to hope that China’s current approach to AGW negotiations is a bargaining position; that their own science community is telling some home truths about dwindling glacial waters feeding the Yellow, Yangtse and Mekong rivers for example. I agree with JC that fairness is irrelevant and that any Copenhagen agreement reliant on handshakes over some international formula will be bound to subsequent leakage probably on a massive scale.
But rather than the geo-engineering gamble it would be great if Rudd comes good with his announced funding for three big solar projects that pave the way for technology exports instead.
Wishful thinking? Probably but as a pessimist there is no way out but up.
Short of a collapse of the Atlantic conveyor bringing warm gulf stream water to western Europe, no amount of drip fed tipping points would seem to work in favour of a global wake up call IMHO.

15 years ago

You would have to hope that Chinas current approach to AGW negotiations is a bargaining position

It might be better to hope that Australia, the US and Canada would follow China’s lead. The New York Times reported earlier this month:

China Outpaces U.S. in Cleaner Coal-Fired Plants

TIANJIN, China Chinas frenetic construction of coal-fired power plants has raised worries around the world about the effect on climate change. China now uses more coal than the United States, Europe and Japan combined, making it the worlds largest emitter of gases that are warming the planet.

But largely missing in the hand-wringing is this: China has emerged in the past two years as the worlds leading builder of more efficient, less polluting coal power plants, mastering the technology and driving down the cost.

While the United States is still debating whether to build a more efficient kind of coal-fired power plant that uses extremely hot steam, China has begun building such plants at a rate of one a month.

Construction has stalled in the United States on a new generation of low-pollution power plants that turn coal into a gas before burning it, although Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Thursday that the Obama administration might revive one power plant of this type. But China has already approved equipment purchases for just such a power plant, to be assembled soon in a muddy field here in Tianjin.

The steps theyve taken are probably as fast and as serious as anywhere in power-generation history, said Hal Harvey, president of ClimateWorks, a group in San Francisco that helps finance projects to limit global warming.

Western countries continue to rely heavily on coal-fired power plants built decades ago with outdated, inefficient technology that burn a lot of coal and emit considerable amounts of carbon dioxide. China has begun requiring power companies to retire an older, more polluting power plant for each new one they build. […]

Chinas improvements are starting to have an effect on climate models. In its latest annual report last November, the I.E.A. cut its forecast of the annual increase in Chinese emissions of global warming gases, to 3 percent from 3.2 percent, in response to technological gains, particularly in the coal sector, even as the agency raised slightly its forecast for Chinese economic growth. Its definitely changing the baseline, and thats being taken into account, said Jonathan Sinton, a China specialist at the energy agency. […]

China has just built a small, experimental facility near Beijing to remove carbon dioxide from power station emissions and use it to provide carbonation for beverages, and the government has a short list of possible locations for a large experiment to capture and store carbon dioxide. But so far, it has no plans to make this a national policy.

China is making other efforts to reduce its global warming emissions. It has doubled its total wind energy capacity in each of the past four years, and is poised to pass the United States as soon as this year as the worlds largest market for wind power equipment. China is building considerably more nuclear power plants than the rest of the world combined, and these do not emit carbon dioxide after they are built.

China is also becoming a major manufacturer of photovoltaic cells. You could argue, correctly, that China still isn’t doing enough but it would be a stronger argument if Australia were doing more.

A significant contribution that Australia could be making, to which the nation’s size is largely irrelevant, is in further development of science and technology that can be exported to assist other nations in reducing their emissions. Opportunities range from the existing hot rock R&D in the Cooper Basin, to solar energy capture to energy-efficient building construction to CO2 capture and storage, and more. The founder-chairman of Suntech, China’s larges manufacturer of photovoltaic cells, learned his craft as a post-grad student at University of NSW.

Australians could sit around and whinge that this is only “a little country that doesnt kid itself that it has much influence”, or we could remember that Australia is the 18th largest nation by GDP out of the 228 nations listed here, and start pulling our weight.

15 years ago

Dear me. Struck a nerve, have we?

The late Donald Horne:

In a hot summer’s night in December 1964 I was about to write the last chapter of a book on Australia. The opening sentence of this last chapter was: ‘Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.’ […]

I had in mind in particular the lack of innovation in Australian manufacturing and some other forms of Australian business, banking for example. In these, as a colonial carry over, Australia showed less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society.

But of course that couldn’t still be true… could it?

15 years ago

Mike M Ross Garnaut is also very upbeat on China’s responses and all power to them. At least they don’t appear to be throwing money at CCS in the manner of Rudd & Co which possibly attests to their assessment of its practicality.
Adding fizz to the beer and soft drinks for 1.3 billion is no small beer Jacques!

Joshua Gans
15 years ago

…the nonsense from the developing countries of you created this mess, so you should pay to clean it up.

It’s not so much that it’s nonsense, as that the rights and wrongs are impossible to quantify. A simple formula binding all countries to equal emissions per capita by, say, 2050 seems as fair as we’re likley to come with, and it gives developed countries an incentive to cut deeper.

15 years ago

Jacques – that’s going to depend on where carbonated drinks factories currently source their CO2. I very much doubt it’s from the farts of a coal-fired power station.

15 years ago

There is an alternative scenario in which China’s emissions are almost besides the point. In this scenario, the real question is whether China survives the Great Massive Leap of Faith from a rural sub-subsistence society under Mao to a largely urban largely capitalist society. This involves, amongst other things, the largest mass migration in human history. Mass migrations have rarely been peaceful.

Under this scenario, if China does not become richer, successfully and quickly, the global warming will hardly matter as China dissolves into riot and civil war and tears apart first its region (which includes, you will recall, countries like Russia, Japan and India) and then, given the size of the region, the world. Even if ‘we’ in the west are not drawn into combat the economic conflagration will make the GFC look like a doddle.

This is of course just one scenario and I don’t know if I believe it or not. But if it is a valid scenario, and global warming matters, then it provides a valid rationale for us to subsidize China’s, and indeed the whole developing world’s, carbon-friendly industrialisation. Because we can’t afford for them not to emit more even more than we can’t afford their emissions!

This is, of course, completely without the fundamental humanitarian imperative to facilitate the third world’s industrialisation. Really, it is no small stretch to say that at the status quo there is a humanitarian imperative to emit carbon. The only feasible way I can see of changing that status is nuclear power, and truckloads of it. That way, at least, in the global carbon scheme dirty western coal plants can be replaced by cleaner third-world coal plants, which is still an improvement.