Wednesday, November 4, 2015

China's Coal Revision: A Blockbuster for Paris?

I'm waiting nervously--maybe you are too--to see what effect China's greatly elevated coal consumption numbers will have on the Paris discussions. Though it has been known to Chinese officials for months, maybe years, that China's statistical agencies had undercounted coal consumption, it only became news yesterday when The New York Times reported it in a comprehensive story by Chris Buckley. By overlooking smaller, mostly industrial (not utilities) enterprises, the official statistical agency underestimated by as much as 17% China's actual greenhouse gas emissions from coal--a huge number (greater than the entire German economy's fossil fuel emissions). So what will this mean for the international process to contain GHG?

One might note the declaration yesterday by Chinese premier Li Keqiang that China has a "duty to humanity" to reduce its emissions. The statement, made in conjunction with President Hollande's visit to China in an effort to build momentum for Paris, is on its face unrelated to the coal announcement, but it's hard to think it was a coincidence. Is China becoming more interested in taking leadership on the climate issue as it advances to the center of the world stage? Or might it be more apt to see Li's declaration as mendacious face-saving?

Another optimistic spin is given by observers who note that 1) China's economic downturn is already reducing its emissions, and 2) this higher number will accelerate the rate of decrease, and cause China's emissions to peak sooner than 2030, as promised. But notice the perverse logic of this bureaucratic response: the problem is worse than we thought; therefore it's easier to make it less bad. This is not the thinking that will get us where we need to go.

What needs to happen--at least--is that this bleak statistic motivates the delegates in Paris to insist on strict, binding review of national compliance, at least every 5 years, as many propose, but really in an ongoing way. And that 'review' must be tied to an expressed goal to improve on the inadequate commitments that most nations--including our own--are bringing to the Paris table. China's alarming revelation--coupled with the devastation in Indonesia, backsliding in Brazil, lawsuits that threaten Obama's executive measures in the US, Russia's increasingly strident denialism--demonstrate once again how much work will remain after Paris.

So here's my nervous hope for what will happen: a relatively tranquil accord around existing agreements in Paris, but a vehement and binding commitment to use Paris as a platform for greatly accelerated energy transformation and climate adaptation moving forward. And a global citizens' movement to hold them/us to it--starting right here in the US as well as the EU. Without tangible, enforceable measures to do better immediately after Paris and thereafter, China's example--and all the others--makes clear that we risk spinning in circles, promoting false solutions and phony data, right to the end.

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