Wednesday, March 10, 2021

China disappoints on global warming

Earlier, I spent some minutes looking up my colleagues’ past musings on China’s annual session of the National People’s Congress, in search of inspiration for how to describe it. I found “rubber-stamp parliament”, “this insubstantial pageant” and (my personal favourite): “China’s well-fed eunuch of a parliament”. This year’s event got under way on Friday. It is marked by the approval of the 14th five-year plan, which runs from now until 2025 and is being closely watched by climate analysts for hints of how the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases will transform itself from coal-guzzler to “ecological civilisation”, an expression President Xi Jinping is fond of.

The plan published on Friday left much to be desired. Analysts were looking for an indication that the country’s emissions would peak sometime around 2025 (Mr Xi has previously spoken of doing so “before 2030”) in order to start what will have to be a dizzying decarbonisation as soon as possible, and ultimately meet the national goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2060. (Analysts at the International Energy Agency described this as “potentially...the biggest climate undertaking ever made by any country”.)

Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, wrote to me that he “was expecting at least a total energy consumption target” which has featured in previous five-year plans but is absent from the 14th edition. “Now there’s even less by way of targets that constrain carbon dioxide emissions growth than in the previous five-year plans,” he added.

What the published draft did include were targets to decrease the amount of energy that is used, and the amount of carbon dioxide emitted, for each unit of GDP. These two numbers are set to fall by 13.5% and 18% respectively between 2021 and 2025, which is approaching what Chinese policy analysts have said is needed for the country to meet its long-term climate goals, assuming the economy grows by 5.3% per year. The catch is that, unusually, this five-year plan does not include a GDP target for the whole period. It says only that it will grow by 6% in 2021.

China has a habit of setting its climate targets low and over-achieving them. Indeed, carbon-dioxide intensity (how much is emitted per unit of GDP) fell by 18.8% between 2015 and 2020, so the new formal target is unambitious. And there are hints to be gleaned elsewhere about the future of Chinese coal.

As we wrote in December, China turning its back on coal sooner rather than later is essential for meeting the global Paris climate goals, not just its own national carbon-neutrality target. Friday’s document mentions “promoting the clean use of coal”. Yet on March 4th, the China National Coal Association said that coal consumption in 2025 would be capped at 4.2bn tonnes, a small increase from 2020. Further detail may come in regional and sectoral plans, including one on energy, that will be published in the coming months.

One surprise announcement in Friday’s draft was a target to increase nuclear electricity-generating capacity from 52 gigawatts today to 70 gigawatts by 2025.

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Climate Lockdowns?

Ecofascists point to the emissions reductions during COVID shutdowns as a model for climate.

False climate predictions are, unfortunately, nothing new. “The world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,” declared climate expert Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019 while pushing the Green New Deal. Former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 “An Inconvenient Truth” told the public there was about a decade of life remaining unless significant climate change measures were implemented. In 1989, Noel Brown, then director of one of the offices of the UN Environment division, espoused the warning that “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000.” Contrast these statements to the 1975 siren by Kenneth Watt, the UC Berkeley professor who predicted the world was going to be “eleven degrees colder in the year 2000 … about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

Now the public is being told that lockdowns may be necessary to save the world from climate change. This is, they say, an existential problem.

Late last summer and early fall, the whispers of “climate lockdowns” first appeared. In an opinion article for MarketWatch, Mariana Mazzucato, an author and a professor in innovative economics at the University of London, opined that a climate lockdown would employ measures such as limiting private-vehicle use, banning consumption of red meat, and imposing rationing to force fossil fuel companies out of business. Mazzucato concluded, “To avoid such a scenario, we must overhaul our economic structures and do capitalism differently.”

Now, the UK Guardian trumpets, “The annual rate of emissions cuts must increase roughly tenfold from that recorded in high-income countries before the pandemic.” Furthermore, “Lockdowns around the world led to an unprecedented fall in emissions,” but similar reductions “are needed every year of the next decade to have a good chance of holding temperature rises to within 1.5C or 2C of pre-industrial levels, as required by the Paris agreement.”

Ironically, just last month, Science Daily published data by the National Center for Atmospheric Research that wrecked the premise of these lockdowns. As published, “The counterintuitive finding highlights the influence of airborne particles, or aerosols, that block incoming sunlight. When emissions of aerosols dropped last spring, more of the Sun’s warmth reached the planet, especially in heavily industrialized nations, such as the United States and Russia, that normally pump high amounts of aerosols into the atmosphere.”

But don’t get distracted by the inconvenient truths of selective science. Control of money, power, and policy is at the root of this entire cult of thinking aimed at “high-income countries.” It seems that a vow of poverty and Third World status is required.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the 2015 Paris Climate Accord goals are to limit the increase of the global average temperature to 1850 levels, when the U.S. population was around 23 million, Millard Fillmore was president, and there were no cars or personal vehicles outside of a good ole horse and wagon. True to his ideology, the newly appointed United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry is even claiming the Paris Agreement’s goals are inadequate in reducing carbon emissions and that a climate tax, as supported by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, is one of the most significant things that can be done to yield the greatest impact.

The late Dr. Walter Williams, renowned economist, author, and conservative, nailed it: “Communism and socialism have lost respectability, so it’s been repackaged as environmentalism.” The Center-Right needs to stop bickering internally and make a stand, or we’re headed back to before there was a Grand Old Party.


The earth is greening

Aren’t we supposed to be thinking about “climate lockdowns” to reduce emissions and combat global warming climate change? Maybe the folks pushing that idea missed the recent updated memo from NASA — the earth is still getting greener.

At the turn of the century, NASA explained its measurement technique: “By carefully measuring the wavelengths and intensity of visible and near-infrared light reflected by the land surface back up into space, scientists use an algorithm called a ‘Vegetation Index’ to quantify the concentrations of green leaf vegetation around the globe.”

We’re old enough to remember when the environmental problems threatening our existence were deforestation and holes in the ozone layer. As it turns out, there is 10% more vegetation now than there was in 2000, and the trend began at least 10 years before that. To add insult to injury for the ecofascists, the greening is because of human activity, and it offsets emissions and ozone holes far more effectively than mandates or carbon taxes. Another benefit is more food for an increasing world population.

This isn’t new information, of course, as our Jordan Candler wrote two years ago. But it’s worth highlighting once again amidst the renewed panic as the Biden administration rejoins the Paris Agreement.

The entire environmental movement could stand to be actually more green and a whole lot less red.


Nuclear power must be well regulated, not ditched

It has been ten years since a tsunami laid waste the Pacific coast of northern Honshu, Japan’s most populous island. The tsunami and the undersea earthquake which triggered it, the largest ever recorded in the region, killed nearly 20,000 people, destroyed over 100,000 homes and threw the lives of tens of millions into turmoil. The direct economic cost, estimated at over $200bn, was larger than that of any other natural disaster the world has seen. And yet for many around the world the event is remembered for just one thing: the ensuing crisis at the Fuku-shima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant

The earthquake cut the plant off from outside sources of electricity. The tsunami easily topped the plant’s sea walls, flooding the underground bunkers containing its emergency generators—a foreseeable risk Japan’s neutered regulators had failed to foresee. Because there was no way to cool the reactor cores, the nuclear fuel within them began to melt; amid fire, explosion and alarming amounts of radiation, a puddle from hell began eating into the plant’s concrete foundations.

The world looked on aghast. In Shanghai and San Francisco iodine tablets and iodised salt jumped off the shelves as people looked for prophylaxis of which they had no need. In Germany the chancellor, Angela Merkel, who had long stood with business leaders against the country’s powerful anti-nuclear movement, ordered its reactors phased out. In China the world’s largest new nuclear-plant programme was put on hold. Talk of a “nuclear renaissance” to fight climate change fell silent.

The reaction, though understandable, was wrong. Nuclear power has a lot of drawbacks. Its large, slowly built plants are expensive both in absolute terms and in terms of the electricity they produce. Its very small but real risk of catastrophic failure requires a high level of regulation, and it has a disturbing history of regulatory capture, amply demonstrated in Japan. It produces extremely long-lived and toxic waste. And it is associated with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Most of the countries outside Europe that use nuclear power have some history of attempting to develop a bomb. All these factors contribute to an unease with the technology felt, to greater or lesser extent, by people all around the world.

Against all that, though, two things must be remembered. One is that well-regulated nuclear power is safe. With the terrible Soviet-era exception of Chernobyl, nuclear disasters come without large death tolls. It was the tsunami, not radiation, that claimed nearly all those lives in Fukushima. The other is that the climate is in crisis, and nuclear plants can supply some of the vast amounts of emissions-free electricity the world needs if it is to cope. Solar and wind power are now much cheaper, but they are intermittent. Providing a reliable grid is a lot easier if some of its generating capacity can be assumed to be available all the time. Nuclear provides such capacity with no ongoing emissions, and it is doing so safely and at scale around the world.

Despite this, safe and productive nuclear plants are being closed across the rich world. Those closures and the retirement of older sites mean that advanced economies could lose two-thirds of their nuclear capacity by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency. If new fossil-fuel infrastructure fills the gap, it will last for decades. If renewables do so, the opportunity cost will be measured in gigatonnes of carbon. Renewables replacing nuclear capacity would almost always be better deployed to replace fossil-fuel capacity.

Sometimes the closure of nuclear plants is largely a matter of economics. In places where emitting carbon dioxide comes with no price, such as America, the benefits of being emissions-free are hidden from the market. That hurts nuclear, and it should be rectified. When closure is political, the onus is on Green politicians, in particular, to change their tune. To hasten the decline of nuclear power is wilfully to hobble the world in the greatest environmental struggle of all.

The argument for keeping existing nuclear plants open has been strengthened, in some places, by one of the responses to Fukushima: greater independence for nuclear regulators. Britain granted new freedom to its regulator after 2011. So did Japan. Though grander hopes for reform after the tsunami bore little fruit, Japan did largely take the regulators’ hand from the power companies’ glove. Its new supervisor has made reopening mothballed nuclear power plants harder than the government would like, but that is as it should be. In Japan more than anywhere, nuclear needs to earn back trust to be useful.

This points to nuclear’s greatest weakness. In democracies it is expensive, owing to regulation and public antipathy, which makes new nuclear power a hard sell. The technology is thus increasingly the preserve of autocracies—precisely the systems where good regulation is least likely. Having paused after Fukushima, China’s nuclear plans accelerated as part of an effort to reduce reliance on coal. China produced four times as much nuclear energy in 2019 as it did in 2011; it has 16 reactors under construction and another 39 planned. Countries wanting new nuclear plants now look to China and Russia as suppliers.

There is a strong case for democracies seeking to replace ageing nuclear plants with non-intermittent equivalents to join the importers. If Chinese reactors are designed in the knowledge that they will have to meet with the approval of independent regulators the world will be a safer place. At the same time, in boosting energy r&d to tackle the climate crisis, Western governments should be sure to give nuclear its fair share. There are real attractions to some new approaches, notably smaller reactors with lower unit costs: in platoons they can replace old plants; singly they can add incremental capacity where needed. They might perhaps be used to retrofit old fossil-fuel plants.

Nuclear power has drawbacks the size of a tsunami. But with Chinese plants being built today that will not be decommissioned until the 22nd century, it cannot simply be wished away. What is more, it has a vital role to play in the fight for a stable climate. The lesson of Fukushima is not to eschew nuclear power, it is to use it wisely.




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