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The Tide Turned on Climate Change – And (Almost) No One Noticed


Peter Wheeler

The Nature Conservancy's Executive Vice President

November 2014

Photo © BadlyDrawnDad/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Photo © BadlyDrawnDad/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Were we asleep? Or just too jaded (or discouraged, or addicted to pessimism) to acknowledge it?

It happened during Climate Week 2014 in New York—an event that ended just over six weeks ago, but which is already beginning to seem like a distant, half-recalled dream. Oh, good things happened there, certainly—in addition to us now knowing what Ban-Ki Moon looks like on dress-down Friday, and getting a glimpse of Leonardo di Caprio when he’s not Gatsby or Wolfing down Wall Street.

But the biggest development by far passed just about everyone by. And that needs to change if we are to really make progress at Lima in December (site of the next United Nations' (UN) Climate Change Conference); at COP21 in Paris; and most importantly, if we are to start to win the war on climate change, the only war worth fighting. No victims, only survivors.

So what was it?

This: Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli quietly announcing that China’s policy now is to “reach peak emissions” as soon as possible.

No mention of at how many gigatonnes that peak might be, nor of when “as soon as possible” might be. That debate is now no doubt raging in Beijing. And yes, it was Zhang, not President Xi Jinping.

But make no mistake: this was a radical development.

Because when it comes to reversing the tide of climate change, much depends on China (and India).

The diagram shows the annual increase in CO2 emissions in various countries. It should be noted that the per capita emissions in developed countries are still substantially higher than in China or India. © C. LeQuéré
The diagram shows the annual increase in CO2 emissions in various countries. It should be noted that the per capita emissions in developed countries are still substantially higher than in China or India. © C. LeQuéré

Europe and North America passed peak emissions long ago—just as they should. So the issue for these big historic emitters is not whether or when, but simply how fast those annual emissions decline. Not a trivial matter of course.

For China (and India), however, emissions are still going up, both on a per capita basis and in aggregate. On a per capita basis it is inconceivable that they will ever reach the levels enjoyed today in Europe, let alone the astronomical figure squandered per head by the energy gluttons in North America.

Source © EDGAR 4.2 (1970-2008); UNPD, 2010
Source © EDGAR 4.2 (1970-2008); UNPD, 2010

But here’s the good news: now China at least gets it. It’s official. A Chinese vice-premier does not travel to a major international gathering with heads of state and make off-hand remarks.

This is now national policy, and it couldn’t be bigger.

Of course, China is still going to build coal plants. (I watched one being built last week. I was in Inner Mongolia, working with the Conservancy’s landscape regeneration team.) That said, it was also reported last month that in 2013 China’s coal consumption declined year-on-year, for the first time in 100 years.

What Zhang’s declaration means is that China will build “as few as possible and stop as soon as possible”—because there is no other way to be consistent with his headline declaration, and Chinese policy is nothing if not consistent.

It’s also a serious change in tone from the previous official Chinese policy on de-carbonization, which was (paraphrasing): “We will do our bit by de-carbonizing each yuan of GDP in the economy, but you cannot expect us to stay in the 18th century when you (Europe and United States) have spent 250 years emitting your way into a modern economy.”

China is clearly not taking this new step to “weaken” its core negotiating position, as an altruistic gesture. It’s doing so because it has to—for the good of the people of China.

(As an aside: October was a big month for announcements of changes in China’s policies at the highest levels. For example, the CPC announced after its annual four-day senior-most conclave in Beijing that, for the first time, strengthening the Rule of Law (explicitly at the expense of political interference) was now a priority policy. This is probably even more significant at a broad level than the change in approach on carbon emissions policy.)

China is now setting the bar very high for the rest of the world. The interesting thing will be to watch how the China negotiators flesh out that pledge over the coming months in the run in to Lima (I would guess that’s already baked) and Paris.

And for conservationists and climate activists, the mission is clear—and it is clearly not to bemoan the inevitability of massive catastrophe due to climate change’s effects.

Instead, it is to identify those tipping points, those choke points that will be most decisive to arresting the incoming tide and, building off China’s declaration and inevitable de-carbonization, turn it.

Just last week, Mark Carney the Bank of England Governor (and a Canadian National) observed that large percentages of coal and other fossil fuel reserves currently on corporate balance sheets were likely “stranded.” That is becoming a mainstream view. There are abundant opportunities for change and for progress, if we have the wit to seize them and build on them. For instance: How long can the Harvard University endowment Trustees hold out against the tide of fossil fuel business disinvestment, led by Stanford University?

History has always been on the side of the progressives, despite our refusal many times to realize it. Canute’s feet will undoubtedly get wet. But there are now glimmers of light to the East, and they give us an excellent chance to ensure he won’t drown on the beach.

Originally Posted on Conservancy Talk

November 05, 2014