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China springs a carbon surprise

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Business Times, October 3, 2014

Ahead of a major Parisian meeting in about 12 months’ time, Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli startled a United Nations meeting by promising huge reductions in Chinese pollution. Over the next year we will see and hear more media discussion about global pollution levels as we approach a new milestone event in the calendar of the IPCC (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

The meeting in Paris in November 2015 is to discuss its 5th Assessment Report and to agree on new regulations – like the Kyoto Protocol, following an IPCC meeting in December 1997, that committed nations to strongly reduce their greenhouse gases by 2020. We see a revamp of discussions of the science behind pollution, greenhouse gases and climate change – a notable story being the reduction of “the ozone hole”. The appropriate regulations were signed off in Montreal in 1987 and its present success is being lauded and outlined as a mode to aid the next IPCC meeting in Paris. But it will be difficult as the 2015 meeting faces much greater complexity than in Montreal.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon convened a meeting in New York in September to stimulate thoughts, and for heads of state to consider their position ahead of the Paris meeting and hopefully to give preliminary promises. China’s Vice-Premier Zhang startled the opening session by promising low levels of Chinese emissions after 2020 – when the Paris agreement, if agreed, will kick in.

Already 12 of China’s 44 provinces, which account for 44 per cent of China’s coal consumption, have pledged to control their coal consumption. Six have included absolute coal consumption targets in their action plans. Mr Zhang reiterated a recent plan announced by China to cut carbon intensity by 40-45 per cent by 2020 from their 2005 levels.

This is extremely important as China faces huge increasing demands for energy that in the immediate future can only be met by using coal as its primary energy source even though this will raise fatality rates due to increasing emissions of PM 2.5 – small airborne particles causing respiratory illnesses and early death. In China such morbidity costs nearly 12 per cent of its GDP and its public clamours for cleaner cities free of choking air pollution.

The Montreal agreement followed a scientific study of atmospheric ozone depletion. It was found to be caused by CFC chemicals used in fire extinguishers, aerosols and in refrigerants. The CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) combine with the ozone in the high atmosphere and the lower concentrations of ozone allow more harmful radiation from the sun to reach the earth’s surface, and human beings.

The agreement was drafted over several years and was aided by (a) being tightly focused on “ozone issues” using a composite weighting function that combined the effects of all CFCs into a single number (note: it actually concerned only one chemical family); (b) having firms cease CFC use much earlier than the action date as the US had already banned CFC use in aerosols; (c) the CFC sector in each country embraced only a small spectrum of their national economy; and (d) having a well-informed public demanding “the easy to visualise ozone hole be filled in as soon as possible” to protect personal health. Job done!

Currently we focus on the “carbon footprint” as a measure of potential climate change – specifically climate warming. This is a different mathematical equation that weights the greenhouse warming effect of contributing chemicals and equating these to the unique warming effect of carbon dioxide. CO2 is formed when we burn carbon (fossil fuels, for example) in oxygen: by definition this warms the atmosphere with a weighting of unity. However, unlike the limited commercial and social drivers of CFC use, the modern world emits greenhouse gases from every aspect of our lives: they affect every commercial driver of trade. As a consequence, regulation of any single aspect raises outcries, and the pollution reducing goal of the IPCC raises fears of a global recession.

It is here that China can exert world-leading influence. Its scientists and engineers can lead in producing controlling methods for the entire greenhouse spectrum provided its government agrees to invest highly in these sectors and to openly cooperate with all nations. The Chinese politicians can present rational argument.

The broad model of Chinese economic growth has already shown the way forward. China has built numerous new huge cities as it expects millions of its rural people to drift into cities during the next 20 years as all sectors increase their GDP per capita and poor rural people look to gain some of this wealth.

By building ahead of the rush, the built environment can be carefully controlled to reduce urban sprawl. Through good design it will reduce global pollution by enforcing zero-carbon designs on new city buildings as cities account for about 70 per cent of overall pollution.

There is further benefit as shops, schools, hospitals and workplaces will be located on urban mass transport systems whereas it is estimated that urban sprawl costs America some US$400 billion per year. Thus the new Chinese cities will reduce mortality due to pollution, increase standards of hygiene, and lower many aspects of big-city stress such as the delays created by traffic jams.

China is demonstrating world-class designs for future well-being. I would hope that within the 2015 Paris IPCC meeting everyone will take heed of their wide vision. Yet I am not sanguine – for it was only the Kyoto meeting, almost by accident, that yielded a broad consensus. Usually IPCC meetings descend into chaos and bickering. It is time to stop that, and possibly President Xi Jinping might lead the way. He is forceful inside China and he is creating bridges to the outside. Perhaps he can argue for better assignment of the present US$45 trillion spent on infrastructures in emerging markets as they keep up with energy demand. We need a forceful leader to enforce a global movement to a low carbon future.

The writer is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.