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Opinion

Climate change blame game turns against Asia

Prospect of global agreement on carbon seems vanishingly small

| East Asia
Smoke rises from a coal processing plant in Hejin in November 2019: China alone now accounts for close to 30% of emissions,   © AP

Nick Butler is a visiting professor at King's College London and a former senior executive at energy company BP.

Despite the strongly worded and unequivocal report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body that operates under the auspices of the United Nations, published at the beginning of August, the prospect of global agreement on action to limit global warming seems further away than ever.

The IPCC report suggests that we are on track for warming of at least three degrees by the end of the century and that in the meantime, we will experience ever more examples of unpredictable extreme weather.

In November -- less than a hundred days away -- a major climate conference will be held in Scotland. The chances of any significant progress being made in Glasgow seem vanishingly small. In the absence of agreement a blame game is beginning and the targets for the blame are the growing economies of Asia.

As the IPCC report demonstrates, climate change is already with us. The world's average temperature has risen by 1.1 degrees since the middle of the 19th century with the fastest increase concentrated in the last five years. Emissions of greenhouse gases have grown from less than five billion tons to 35 billion in the last 50 years.

The impacts are already beginning to be felt from floods in China and Northern Europe to heat waves and bush fires in the mid-West of the United States, Greece and China. The Arctic ice is visibly melting and desertification and water shortages are spreading throughout the Middle East.

Rising public concern about the issue has raised expectations of action to limit the risks but there remains a huge gap between the political pledges to deliver net-zero emissions by the middle of the century and the current reality. Some 140 countries have committed to some form of net-zero target. None have produced credible, detailed plans for how to achieve that goal.

As we emerge from the COVID recession of the last year, the recovery is hydrocarbon led. Oil, natural gas and coal continue to provide 80% of global energy supply. Renewables such as wind and solar are growing and getting cheaper to the point where they offer the most competitive source of new power generation. In 2020 they provided the bulk of newly built capacity but that still amounted to only 10% of the total electricity supply in an industry still dominated by established plants running on coal and natural gas.

The energy transition is slow and is still being outpaced by the growth in demand driven by increasing prosperity and population growth which is producing almost 250,000 new consumers every year. This is where the global divisions on climate policy and the blame game for the slow pace of change begin.

In the developed world of the U.S., Europe and Japan, energy demand is falling thanks to the improved efficiency provided by new technology and structural changes in the pattern of economic life. Energy consumption is flat or falling, and so are the volumes of emissions.

The result is that almost all the growth in emissions seen over the last two decades has come from Asia. China alone now accounts for close to 30% of emissions, a figure that may increase still further this year given strong Chinese economic growth.

The post-COVID recovery in Asia has relied on coal. Coal demand is already above 2019 levels and continues to grow. Even after taking account of old facilities which have been closed, China added almost 30 gigawatts of new coal fired power generating capacity in 2020.

India has some 60GW of capacity under construction. India is aiming for economic growth of 10% per annum and even if that ambition is not met the sheer scale of the Indian population suggests a further sharp increase in emissions over the next decade as tens of millions of people emerge from subsistence poverty and begin to use commercial energy for the first time.

An older man watches television with his grandchildren in a village supplied with electricity for the first time in Anandpur: tens of millions of people begin to use commercial energy over the next decade in India.    © AP

Southeast as a whole, from Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam, now accounts for more than half of global energy demand. All the major economies in the region continue to rely on coal and as a result, emissions will keep rising.

Both sides feel they are in the right. Europe and the U.S. are spending billions to cut emissions -- an endeavor that governments will find hard to justify if the reductions are overwhelmed by increases from Asia. Asian governments will point to past decades in which European and American economies pumped out huge volumes of emissions, as well as the still sharp gap between per capita levels of energy consumption in the U.S. and in Asia. The average Indian uses one-tenth of the energy consumed by the typical American.

The divergence could turn nasty. Climate could emerge as the next substantial point of dispute in the geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China. Europe could within months establish a new tariff system that will protect European industry from imports from countries unable or unwilling to match European climate policies. The primary victims of such a policy would be emerging economies seeking to industrialize.

Such disputes will do nothing to resolve the challenge of climate change. As the episodes of extreme weather demonstrate, climate change draws no distinction between North and South, or between advanced and emerging economies. If anything, the countries of Asia, including China and India, are likely to suffer more than Europe or the U.S. from shortages of water and from forced migration as parts of the region become uninhabitable.

Even if the meeting in Glasgow fails to reach any substantive agreement, the case for seeking a common, cooperative global solution is very strong.

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