Opinion

Thursday 17 January 2019

If China changes, everything changes in battle for the planet

Although Trump will still hog the limelight, it is the Chinese who hold the key to curbing climate change, writes Paul Deane

HOPE: French President Emmanuel Macron, left, meets Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing for discussions on climate change. Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/AP
HOPE: French President Emmanuel Macron, left, meets Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing for discussions on climate change. Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron dominated the climate change headlines in 2017, for vastly different reasons. However, for 2018, it is what happens in Beijing that really counts.

Last year, President Trump began the exit from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

The accord, ratified by 196 countries, aims to keep the global temperature rise this century to under 2C compared with pre-industrial levels.

The US leader believes climate change is a hoax and instead wants to promote coal as an energy source.

Mr Trump's stance has been met with consternation and anger.

However, in stepped France's President Macron to lead resistance to global warming with a pledge to protect the Earth's resources through his One Planet Summit.

Trump and Macron have opposing views on climate change and promote contrasting visions of the future.

Trump conjures up a vision of America's halcyon days as an industrial giant, where coal is king and climate change is a fiction.

Macron carries the banner for a future where energy is clean, hi-tech and sustainable. However, both ideas are challenging and problematic.

For Trump, physics and the fundamental properties of coal are against him.

Other fossil fuels such as natural gas contain more energy that is cleaner and also easier to transport.

A unit of electricity generated from coal produces twice as much greenhouse gas as natural gas, which causes less air pollution and integrates well with wind and solar power.

Trump blames his predecessor in the Oval Office along with climate change policy for killing coal, though coal has appeared to be a terminal case for years in the US.

One of the major reasons is cheap natural gas unlocked by the technological breakthrough in hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.

There is no going back from this now and electricity companies are either shutting down coal-fired plants or switching to cheaper and cleaner natural gas.

Coal has had its time in the western world.

Macron, on the other hand, has put his faith for the future in a pivotal role for science and technology.

Yet the challenge for France's president remains both terrifyingly simple and exceptionally hard.

We live in a world where it is cheaper to produce energy from dirty fuels than most clean ones. Getting industry and individuals to pay more for energy is not easy if developing countries are using dirty, cheaper fuels.

Macron has concentrated on getting large industries to pledge money to the cause.

However, he risks alienating his voters if he cannot marry his story of a great planet with one of a great France currently struggling with high youth unemployment and a stagnant economy.

In his favour, Macron has momentum as well as history on his side.

As nations become more affluent they tend to use cleaner energy sources.

In contrast to Trump and Macron, China grapples with a different story of climate change. It doesn't have to convince people that a cleaner future is better. It needs to create it for a growing middle class who are becoming less tolerant of deadly environmental pollution. China is the top greenhouse gas polluter ahead of the United States, accounting for almost 30pc of world emissions.

Beijing is trying to reduce coal consumption not because of climate change but simply because of air pollution.

Regions in northern China are experiencing record levels of pollution this winter. Flights have been disrupted, factories and schools shut.

China is investing heavily in clean power technology to address this. Recent years have seen Beijing take the issue seriously. President Xi Jinping in a speech delivered last week pledged to tackle climate change while Macron on a state visit to China last week praised the country for endorsing action.

These statements would have been unheard of a decade ago when China was seen as an obstacle to change.

The superpower still has a long road to travel. Last year saw a return to a growth in its emissions - softened in previous years by a weakening economy and slowdown in domestic construction.

The choices China makes in 2018 and over the following years will have profound implications for us all.

China is responsible for the largest share of global investment in clean technologies - 20pc.

Between 2008 and 2013, its solar panel industry dropped world prices by 80pc and China is now investing heavily in electric vehicles, batteries, nuclear power and renewables with the real potential to deliver cost reductions that we may all benefit from.

All eyes will continue to be on Trump and Macron this year, but what happens in China is key. As the International Energy Agency put it… when China changes, everything changes.

Dr Paul Deane is a research fellow at the Environmental Research Institute, UCC

Sunday Independent

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