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London's Policy on Climate Change Should Begin in London, Not Beijing

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CLIMATE CHANGE
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By: Malcolm Grimston

Watch Malcolm Grimston at the Intelligence Squared debate, 'London's policy on climate change should begin in Beijing' this Thursday at the Royal Society, London, in association with the IHT and supported by Shell.

On the face of it it seems almost a no-brainer. Taking 1990, the Kyoto base year, and 2010 as the standards, global primary energy use has increased by some 48%.

But in North America the increase has been 'just' 28% and in Europe and Eurasia there has been a fall of 13%, while in Asia-Pacific the rise has been 156% and in China 257%.

Global carbon dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels grew by 47% - a stark illustration of the failure of climate change policy so far - but again in North America the increase has been 16% and in Europe and Eurasia there has been a fall of 17%, while in Asia-Pacific emissions have increased by 159% and in China by 242%.

The old call for 'contract and converge' as an approach to greenhouse gas emissions is partly under way - some convergence but scarcely a whiff of contraction. Nor are things likely to change soon - China's latest Five Year Plan projects a doubling of power capacity between 2010 and 2020, some 55% of the growth coming from coal.

The logical response to this state of affairs might seem obvious - put any resources available for combatting climate change into ensuring that the energy systems of the most rapidly developing countries are as efficient and carbon-light as possible.

In the short term the amount of carbon saved per unit invested is bound to be higher, both because of the current state of technology in some developing countries and because it is inherently more fruitful to introduce low carbon measures when plant is being built (to meet growing demand) than to backfit them onto existing plant or to replace plant early (as is more likely to be the case in areas where energy growth is slow and new capacity largely a matter of replacement). This was the philosophy behind the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) at Kyoto - allow companies investing in low carbon energy in countries not covered by carbon caps to gain carbon credits to 'subsidise' their emissions in the developed world.

However, there are three clear reasons for rejecting this as an all-out policy.

First is simply that of verification - there are plenty reported examples of low-carbon schemes being cancelled and resurrected a few metres away, or with minor modifications, in order to gain carbon credits through the CDM. It may be possible to tighten up on criteria to address this, though not easy.

Secondly, sustainability is not just a matter of the environment and climate change. Any approach to climate change must also be sustainable under economic, resource and social criteria. Growing fears about international security of supply as demand grows and fossil reserves become depleted create a compelling case for developing low-carbon (i.e. fossil fuel free) technologies and preserving natural gas for direct heating and for peaking capacity in electricity supply to compensate for the intermittency of some renewables. In the UK the main factor now quoted by the pro-nuclear power majority in the population is security of supply rather than climate change. Frankly I don't care if reductions in carbon emissions happen because of deliberate policy or as a by-product of other sensible policy measures.

And third, we must recall that in the developed world we are plundering our children's birthright away to support our unsustainable way of life. We are spending their money as we continue to build up debt; we are using their natural resources as we burn away minerals which have other vital uses; and we are despoiling their atmosphere, possibly irreversibly, to allow us to continue to pour greenhouse gases away so profligately. Say we could borrow another ten years of this lifestyle by exploiting the short-term opportunity of carbon mitigation in China - all this would do would be to allow us to bring up another generation thinking that the Second Law of Thermodynamics can be ignored forever and that we can continue using resources much more quickly than they can be replaced.

Of course we should do all we can to aid the Chinese and other growing economies to improve their lives as sustainably as possible. But none of that removes from us the responsibility of a radical rethink of our relationship with our planet. And that must begin at home, not on the other side of the world.

Read the counter argument to this blog here

Malcolm Grimston is Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment and Development Programme at Chatham House.

Watch Malcolm Grimston at the Intelligence Squared debate, 'London's policy on climate change should begin in Beijing' this Thursday at the Royal Society, London, in association with the IHT and supported by Shell.