Friday, July 18, 2008

Focus on technology to bring China onboard

By Jeffrey Sachs

ABC News Online, Posted Fri Jul 18, 2008 3:00pm AEST
Updated Fri Jul 18, 2008 3:30pm AEST

China has become the world's largest carbon emitter this year, as best we can tell, and in another 10 or 20 years it will be far and away the world's largest carbon emitter.

Like Australia, it's a coal economy. Coal is the highest carbon emission per unit of energy out of all of our fuels, and China's energy system is highly carbon emitting and highly energy intensive, given its industrial structure and the technologies that China uses.

I've tried; I don't see any way to have the world achieve climate targets that are quantitatively appropriate without a decisive change in China's emissions. That means significant change of direction even in the coming decade for power systems, automobiles, and other parts of China's overall energy complex.

I don't believe that we can have an agreement internationally that's meaningful, if China isn't signed on to a major commitment along with the rest of the major economies of the world to reduce carbon emissions and make the transition to a sustainable energy system.

The question is how this can be agreed internationally and the cornerstone of this has to be a full understanding of China's position - which is right, up to a point. China says the rich countries have been by far the largest emitters, the largest emitters per capita, responsible for the historical emissions, and "we're still a developing region, give us time".

The problem is nature doesn't care about those arguments. Nature cares about carbon parts per million, not about whether it's fair or unfair to limit emissions in one way or another, and there can be no solution without China playing a significant role.

The kind of agreement we need to take is one that starts out acknowledging the centrality of economic growth for China for India and others, then to say that is a cornerstone of global policy and within that framework, all the rest of the climate agreements will be reached - so nothing in international agreements will call into question the right of countries to converge with high income countries on a sustainable development trajectory.

Growth and sustainability

Rather than starting with specific numerical targets, or moving straight to trading systems - which are deeply distrusted because they're seen by poor countries as a brake on economic development - we should be starting with a focus on matters of technology.

What kind of economic transformation will make it possible to combine growth with sustainability? We probably know just about all the core technologies that are going to be available up to 2030 or 2040, on a scaled basis, that are going to be tools for achieving the twin objectives of growth and sustainability.

What are they? They are carbon capture and sequestration, for those who continue to use coal-fired power plants, they are nuclear power, they are solar power on a large basis and then there are niches like wind power, maybe biomass, that make sense on a much smaller, niche basis. We know that there are powerful technologies that could give long-distance automobile mileage, that could give much lower use of energy in buildings through appropriate codes, that could have lower energy ratings for motors and other appliances. Those technology choices, though not all at a commercial stage, are actually in sight and add up to a potential for sustainable, rapid economic growth, consistent with a significant decline of global emissions.

My own recommendation would be to start with the technology discussion, not start with the formalism of whether we trade or tax, who gets the permits and who doesn't. That is opaque, unquantifiable in terms of its implications for growth, a shot in the dark, and highly distrusted by China and by other developing countries that say, "why should we get into a straitjacket of unpredictable consequences, when we don't even know what is actually available?"

Network of technological transformation

I would recommend we focus more on asking what technologies need to be promoted, demonstrated and diffused and at what pace that make it possible to combine growth and sustainabilty. The first thing I would do for Australia and China together is put up those demonstration plants for carbon capture and sequestration. If that technology works, that's one direction of fundamental importance. If that technology doesn't work, we've got a whole different set of problems here that are much deeper than anyone has imagined.

Without knowing the core power technology - its cost, its availability, its ability to be scaled - reaching agreements on technicalities of mechanisms seem to me to be getting the story wrong and making it impossible to actually reach a real approach. So my view on this is we say that all countries need to sign up for serious conversion to sustainable technologies. But no country has to sign up on two counts: one, to sacrifice its economic development and second, to make commitments to technologies that are not proved and demonstrated.

We should tighten the requirements and tighten the standards as technologies get proved and rolled out and put our focus on the technological development first: long distance automobiles, low-emission coal-fired power plants, safe nuclear power, large-scale solar thermal power, green buildings, carbon capture of industrial processes, and the list goes on.

We should focus on those and get an agreement with China, the United States, Australia, Europe, and others, that as best available technologies are developed, all countries are committed to adopting them. I think what China would agree to in that context is to join a network of technological transformation, conditional on one more point, and that is that the special responsibility of the rich world would be to make available these technologies to China and others on an open access basis.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs is an economist at Columbia University in New York and director of the Earth Institute. This is an edited excerpt of his keynote address presented on July 14, 2008 at the ANU Crawford School's annual China Update in Canberra. Visit the East Asia Forum blog for more analysis of issues discussed at the forum.

No comments: