Wednesday, November 11, 2009

fluidity of language, dilution of meaning

For any global climate deal to be meaningful, China has to be on board. This straining, gagging desire makes people praise anything that looks like them signing up. Even when it's meaningless.

The world inched closer to an elusive deal to combat climate change yesterday, when China, the world's biggest polluter, made its most substantial commitment yet to curb its carbon emissions and invest in clean energy.

It was not a commitment in the sense of having any measurable element. More importantly, nor was it about reducing carbon emissions.

It was actually

the promise of a "notable" decrease in the carbon intensity of China's economy

Not even any ballpark numbers there, just 'notable'. As slip-through-the-fingers as Gordon Brown's assurance that the EU will - sting me with your numbers, Captain Prudence - pay its 'fair share' of funds to poorer countries suffering on the climate front line.

But the real bad boy is not the lack of solid figures, it's the phrase 'carbon intensity'. Just as industry uses 'emissions reduction' to mean not 'reduction' but 'a smaller increase than we might otherwise have had', so China and India are shifting our language from 'carbon emissions' to 'carbon intensity'.

'Carbon emissions' is the amount of carbon emitted. 'Carbon intensity' is the amount emitted per item manufactured or unit of economic activity.

Producing 10% less CO2 per thneed manufactured is fine until you ramp up production. Make twice as many thneeds and, even though emissions per thneed might have come down, total emissions go up.

The climate isn't looking at emissions per unit of GDP, it only looks at total emissions, so that's the only number that counts.

But we so desperately want China to be on side that we're accepting this bollocksy redefinition. In the same way, we're accept the American shift of language, talking of an agreement that will be 'politically binding' instead of 'legally binding' (as if there had been any agreement on what 'legally binding' was going to mean anyway).

It's rather like the way George Monbiot unpicked India's announcement that it will rapidly build 20GW of solar power cpapcity, equivalent to about a quarter of the UK's electricity production. It got praised as India taking climate change seriously, but, Monbiot noted,

India is also in the middle of a programme to increase coal capacity by 79GW – equivalent to the entire UK power sector – by 2012. The new solar plant will supplement, not substitute, its other forms of power generation.

An economy based on growth will increase total consumption and so rapidly eat up any carbon savings from reducing 'carbon intensity'. Basing any agreements on carbon intensity is a guarantee that we will not reduce carbon emissions.

It means we're more likely to get a deal everyone can sign up to, but when it's effectively designed to fail, what's the point? Making our deals palatable to the people who wish to exacerbate the problem we're trying to rein in is utterly insane.


Dunc said...

Generally agree, but I get my hackles up whenever I see "China" described as "the world's biggest polluter"... Sure, it's technically correct, but there's also the minor point that "China" encompasses, what, nearly a third of the world's population? Then, of course, there's the whole argument about whether emissions from manufacturing should be accounted to the producers or the end-users...

To borrow a construction from the gun nuts: "Countries don't pollute. People do." As soon as you start buying into the idea that gross emissions on a country-wide basis is a meaningful measurement, you're going to start missing the very important fact that very large countries will tend to have very large emissions, even if they have relatively low per capita emissions. And that lets rich SUV-driving twats who take 6 foreign holidays a year get off the hook by pointing at the huddled masses of the global poor.

So that's why I favour a contraction-and-convergence approach based on per-capita emissions rather than country-wide emissions.

merrick said...

Dunc, I completely agree with you. contraction and convergence seems the only just system that I'm aware of.

As I've said before

"Indeed, a full third of China’s emissions are from the manufacture of goods for export (and still their emissions per capita are less than half of ours). I can’t eat at a restaurant and then deride them because they have dirty dishes whereas the unused ones in my kitchen are clean."

The 'blame China' thing not only ignores China's size, it also ignores historical responsibility. The UK has, by quite some distance, been responsible for the greatest amount of carbon emissions to date. There is therefore an obligation on us to be the leader in moving to a low-carbon society.

In fact, most countries have wealth in proportion to their historical emissions. This is not a coincidence.

Whilst emissions should be attributed per-capita, if it's going to work it has to be expressed at the level of national governments. So, it is still very important that the countries with large populations and the one with large per-capita emissions get on board with the solutions.