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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

James Hansen: China and the Barbarians. Part I

China and the Barbarians:  Part I

by James Hansen

An optimistic perspective concerning the path required to stabilize climate can be found here.

Dear Readers,

The formatting is getting more and more messed up on this blog, and I'm sorry to say that I do not have the technical skills to fix it.  Anyway, I just finished reading the entire pdf file, and the best part are the last two pages, for sure!  Please do read them -- they are well worth it.  I won't post them here due to the formatting problem, but you can see the entire text with photos and figures at the link above.

I was in China when U.S. midterm elections caused some people to become more pessimistic about the fate of the planet and humanity. In contrast, I became more optimistic, for two reasons, both related to China. Here I explain the first reason for optimism.

In an op-ed, "Chinese Leadership Needed to Save Humanity," published in the South China Morning Post on 3 November, I argue that China should impose a rising fee (tax) on carbon, for China's own sake and for the future of humanity.

First let's clarify that China is not largely responsible for climate change, even though its CO2 emissions are now largest. Climate change is proportional to integrated (cumulative) emissions1. The fact that most early historic emissions are no longer in the atmosphere – having been distributed among the ocean, atmosphere, soil, and vegetation reservoirs – is almost exactly compensated by the fact that the early emissions have operated longer on the climate system.

Figure 1 shows current emissions (a) and cumulative emissions (b). The United States bears 27% responsibility for cumulative emissions. China is second at 9.5%. On a per capita basis, the United States is more responsible than China by about a factor of ten.

Nevertheless, China's annual emissions have rocketed past those of the United States and other developed countries, and, if they continue on their current growth path, China will become the principal cause of climate change within the next few decades. Also, as shown by Figure 2, the task of getting global CO2 emissions to stabilize can be accomplished only if the rapidly growing emissions of all developing countries can be stabilized and begin to decline over the next few decades. How can I possibly be optimistic about that?

I must start with a fundamental law: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, they will continue to be burned. This law is as certain as the law of gravity. No "caps," "goals" for future emissions, or other self-deceptions can alter this fact. Caps only alter who burns the fuel and the pace of burning – they will not leave fossil fuels in the ground, as science demands. Caps are also inherently disingenuous – a pretense that the price of fossil fuel energy does not need to steadily rise, an attempt to circumvent the "law of gravity"².

Fossil fuels are cheapest in part because they are subsidized, but mainly because they do not pay their costs to society. Enormous world-wide medical costs due to air and water pollution, primarily caused by fossil fuels, are borne by the public, not fossil fuel companies. Nor do they pay for environmental damage or the costs of climate change, which instead will be shouldered especially by our children and grandchildren.

These facts expose the crucial element for solution of the energy and climate problem. A steadily rising carbon fee must be collected from fossil fuel companies. All funds should go to the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations. As the fee rises, fossil fuels will become increasingly unprofitable and will be phased out, replaced by carbon-free energy and increased energy efficiency. This is the economically efficient path to a clean energy future – the cure to fossil fuel addiction.

Wait a minute! If a carbon fee makes economic sense and saves the planet, why is the
United States, for example, not following that path? Fossil fuel interests reign in Washington
and other capitals. Big money forces legislatures to hatch ineffectual schemes such as "cap-and -trade-with-offsets," a system designed by big banks and fossil fuel interests that assures
continued fossil fuel addiction.

Is there any hope that China will take the game-changing first step by adopting a carbon
tax? Why would they do so? Why would this be the harbinger of a global framework?
I believe that China has powerful reasons to place a rising fee on carbon: (1) China will
suffer more than most nations from changing climate and rising sea level, (2) China has horrific air and water pollution from fossil fuels, (3) China wants to avoid the enormous costs and burdens that accompany fossil fuel addiction, (4) there is great economic advantage in having the leading low-carbon technologies.

More at link above (sorry about the formatting problems -- also, I can't copy pdf file figures, so they are missing above).

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