July 1, 2014

Climate Calamity Averted: New Renewable Rivalry Between the US and China

It was but a few years ago that China was known all around as one of the big three world polluters, spewing tons and tons of carbon into the air, primarily through its coal-powered electricity plants.

China, responsible for about 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions, closely followed by the US (16%) and the EU (12%), has become the world's biggest carbon emitter. The Chinese use of coal-fired power plants is mirrored by the US in its pursuit of cheap electricity. Whereas the Chinese are forced to call upon Australia for coal imports, the United States is home to the largest coal reserves in the world, and in 2010 half of America's energy was still produced using coal power plants.

In the run up to the US presidential elections of 2008, then-candidate Obama uttered many pledges and promises to woo voters. He particularly promised to ensure that 10% of US electricity would come from renewable sources by 2012 and 25% by 2025. In addition, Obama also promised to establish a low national carbon-fuel standard. Arguably, Obama at the time felt at ease with promulgating such a seemingly drastic rhetoric, given George W. Bush's well-known ties with the oil industry which turned the renewable energy argument into a convenient ploy to bash his Republican opposition. Sen. John McCain appeared to talk the talk on the "effects of greenhouse-gas emissions," but apparently in contrast to his Democrat rival, he favored the nuclear option instead. And we should not forget that McCain's running mate Sarah Palin, in turn, loved using the populist slogan "Drill, baby, drill!", indicating that she favored a renewed drive for domestic oil production in the US Still, on the ground the US and China both vied for the status of top polluter, with the latter eventually taking the lead.

Leader everywhere
But as always, China is motivated by the long-term argument, and on 28 February 2005 the National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) adopted the Renewable Energy Law. Subsequently, President Hu Jintao signed and promulgated the law, effective from 1 January 2006 (and amended in 2009), requiring "power grid operators to purchase resources from registered renewable energy producers". The Law also includes a number of financial incentives, such as a "national fund to foster renewable energy development, and discounted lending and tax preferences for renewable energy projects".

China's renewable energy consumption stood at a measly 3% in 2003, and the Renewable Energy Law aims to increase the consumption level to 10% by 2020. The Law is pretty specific in its determination, declaring that renewable energy in this law “refers to non-fossil energy of wind energy, solar energy, water energy, biomass energy, geothermal energy, and ocean energy, etc."

Since then, the Chinese government has been regarding "renewable energy as the preferential area for energy development and promotes the construction and development of the renewable energy market".

According to Xin Qiu and Honglin Li, writing in the Environmental Law Reporter (2009), from "the end of 2005 to the end of 2007, the capacity of renewable energy facilities nationwide increased by 3.6 million kW, or 30.6%, compared to 2005 levels. The capacity of hydroelectricity, wind electricity, and bioelectricity increased 26.3%, 444%, and 429%, respectively. The actual increase of electricity generated was 82.2 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), or 20.6%. The increase of hydroelectricity, wind electricity, and bioelectricity was 18.9%, 268%, and 363%, respectively".

The authors conclude that in "2009, China had become the largest investor of renewable energy in the world", while still being one of the top three polluters. And the Chinese have since annually invested around $56 billion in the renewable energy sector (in 2013 the People's Republic invested more in clean energy than all of the European nations combined (EU, $55 billion)).

In fact, as indicated by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the "clean energy sector is now an annual $250 billion component of the world economy". And the world's leader in clean energy investment is clearly China. The director of Pew’s clean energy program Phyllis Cuttino said as much when she maintained that "[n]o other clean energy market in the world is operating at that scale”, referring to the Chinese endeavors in the field. 

For instance, in 2013, China increased its solar energy output almost fourfold to 12.1 GW, or 12,100 MW. Whereas, the Chinese drive in the field of wind energy was increased to more than 10 GW. Pew indicated that Chinese investment in wind was $28 billion and in solar $22.6 billion, leaving the US behind in second place for investment in wind energy and third for solar investment.

Concern about people?
China's drive towards clean energy is arguably motivated by the Communist leadership's desire to keep its 1.3 billion population alive and well (or pacified) for the foreseeable future. At the same time, one should not lose track of the fact that most of China’s electricity still primarily comes from coal as well as hydropower. 

This means that the Chinese are still contributing heavily towards adding greenhouse gases to the earth's atmosphere and are thus still carrying the burden of directly contributing to'climate change', endangering the future of humanity. As a result, China's decision to turn green and become a leader in renewable energy has a direct impact on the world's fate and the future of humanity.

Christopher Flavin, a Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C, put forward that the "future of the global climate may rest in large measure on China’s ability to lead the world into the age of renewable energy, much as the United States led the world into the age of oil roughly a century ago". Even though Flavin's statement was made as long ago as 2007, it is only now that the US has taken up this gauntlet under President Obama.

In spite of his lofty campaign promises, President Obama's best-laid renewable energy plans were quashed by the Republican take-over of the House of Representatives in 2010. In December of that year, the Republicans brought an end to the US House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, created by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2007. This talking shop had been set up to debate the latest developments in 'climate change' issues and new developments in climate research, but House Republicans deemed such deliberations “unnecessary".

The issue of 'climate change', the term now favored as the previously used expression "global warming"seems overly alarmist and arguably somewhat inaccurate as the temperature fluctuations now occurring are not always that straightforward in people's perceptions. Nevertheless, the United Nations has released a statement indicating that "13 of the 14 warmest years on record occurred this century", and after all the current year is 2014. As a result, in spite of detractors and other conspiracy-minded deniers one cannot but conclude that 'climate change' is real and that it is very likely caused by human activity, leading to the arguably pompous-sounding concept of "anthropogenic climate change". In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a total of 259 scientists from 39 countries, and better known as IPCC) declared that "[g]lobal atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years. The global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land-use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture".

Last year a newly undertaken research indicated that high levels of methane (or rather methane hydrate) are also to be found underneath the world's oceans (estimated to amount to 700,000 trillion cubic feet), in addition to the methane trapped in the Siberian permafrost. Only last year, the IPCC released its latest findings under the title Climate Change 2013, and its language is disconcerting to say the least: “[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased”, and going on to say that “[h]uman influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system” and finally adding that “[h]uman influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes ... It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.

American exceptionalism and climate change
But in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence US Republicans persist in their obdurate denial of common sense and reason. For example, the US State of Florida appears to be the most vulnerable in terms of the impact of climate change; particularly, as regions in coastal areas that used to be high and dry now regularly get flooded by sea water. A report released by the National Climate Assessment last month suggests that "[m]ore than 5,790 square miles and more than $1 trillion worth of property and structures are at risk of inundation from a sea level rise of two feet above current sea level – an elevation which could be reached by 2050 under a high rate of sea level rise of approximately 6.6 feet by 2100". The report even points to specific locations as particularly endangered: "[r]oughly half of the vulnerable property value is located in Florida, and the most vulnerable port cities are Miami, Greater New York, New Orleans, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Virginia Beach". Still, one of the state's Republican Senators – Marco Rubio, namely – still felt at ease to proclaim that he does "not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying ... The fact is that these events that we're talking about are impacting us, because we built very expensive structures in Florida and other parts of the country near areas that are prone to hurricanes. We've had hurricanes in Florida forever. And the question is what do we do about the fact that we have built expensive structures, real estate and population centers near those vulnerable areas?"

Other examples of Republican difficulties to come to terms with certain 21st-century realities can be found in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith that has so far held three meeting to discuss the existence of extraterrestrial life but only one on the arguably more pressing topic of climate change. As such, the Science Committee is manned by some very peculiar Republican characters indeed: Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), a man known for his denunciation of such frivolous branches of science like cosmology, biology, and geology as propagating "lies straight from the pit of Hell"; Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who said about the issue of global warming that he is"really more fearful of freezing. And I don’t have any science to prove that"; but also Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), who, after a series of destructive tornadoes and droughts in his home state, drafted a resolution for his fellow-citizens to "join together in prayer to humbly seek fair weather conditions". That President Obama has so far not been able to develop his climate change or renewable energy agenda thus seems hardly surprising.

The fact that the current POTUS takes the issue of American exceptionalism seriously was vividly illustrated in his commencement speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY on 28 May 2014. Barrack Obama sounded just like any other predecessor of his, extolling the US' unique role in the world and his nation's God-given mission to lead (even though currently the US is but the"second largest contributor to global warming on the planet", as worded by the AP), saying that the"United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. American military power and action have been in ample evidence around the globe in recent years, proving that the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner is true to his word that action speaks louder than mere words. The American military footprint he inherited and maintained is conspicuously large – the total known land area occupied by US bases and facilities across the world is 15,654 square miles, a territory "bigger than D.C., Massachusetts, and New Jersey combined”, as expressed by Ujala Sehgal and Robert Johnson.

Aside from the geopolitical and other strategic issues forcing Obama to flex the US military muscle, now that he is well and truly into his second (and final) term as the Leader of the Free World, he probably feels the need to establish his own legacy, his own stamp that will mark the world in years, if not centuries, to come. Now that his presidency is approaching its twilight years, Obama has the opportunity to get back to his earlier-uttered campaign promises and he has found a way to revive an old statute, thereby forgoing the need to pass a new law (that would have been stalled and stopped dead in its tracks by the Republican House), that would tackle the issue of carbon emissions and thus finally provide a partial answer the challenge posed by the Chinese as long ago as 2005.

In this way, Obama wants to prove that the US is "the one indispensable nation" that will halt the ill-effects of climate change. The news agency Reuters pronounced that the "US power sector must cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, according to federal regulations unveiled on [2 June 2014] that form the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate change strategy. The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal is one of the most significant environmental rules proposed by the United States, and could transform the power sector, which [now still] relies on coal for nearly 38 percent of electricity" (natural gas and renewable sources such as wind and solar have eaten up 12% of coal's contribution to American electricity). The EPA regulation is called the Clean Power Plan (CPP), and constitutes the center-piece of President Obama's renewable energy policy that is meant to be a guiding light to the rest of the world. But this CPP is but an elaboration on the 1970 Clean Air Act. The president of the Natural Resources Defense Council Frances Beinecke stated that the "purpose of this rule is to really close the loophole on carbon pollution, reduce emissions as we've done with lead, arsenic and mercury and improve the health of the American people and unleash a new economic opportunity", stressing the domestic benefits of the CPP and trying to placate the coal lobby. The coal lobby, arguably in conjunction with the Republican opposition, has already launched its counter-attack, leading Beinecke to write that the "nation’s worst polluters and their allies have launched a propaganda campaign to convince [the American public] that the Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon pollution standards are nothing more than a backdoor energy tax that will kill jobs and cost you money", adding that "[t]hat campaign is a lie. And what’s at stake is too important to let the lie stand, or even start". In other words, the Obama administration already has its work cut out trying to convince US citizens that the issues of climate change and renewable energy are worthwhile and that the CPP will not harm anybody's pockets (apart from those belonging to the coal lobby, that is, even though coal would still provide 31% of the US electricity demand after implementation of the CPP).

The real competitors
Looking at the bigger picture and taking a longer view the Obama administration is now trying to convince global public opinion that the US, and not China, has the "ability to lead the world into the age of renewable energy". While at the moment the US seems to be concentrating on the Ukrainian proxy-battle with Russia in the ongoing New Cold War, President Obama's new focus on the Pacific-Asia region, meaning China, is well-known as well - America's so-called military and strategic “pivot” to Asia.

Already in 2011, the US President concluded a new deal with Australia as a result of which US Marines are now stationed in the northern city of Darwin (at present, the number of US Marines rotating through Darwin stands at a 1,000). Ostensibly, this addition to the US military footprint was set up to"preserve peace and security" in the region, but the reality is that United States regards the rise of China with suspicion and some trepidation. And, as a US dependency of sorts, Australia is keen to host American boots on the ground. As such, at the beginning of this month, the Australian Senate Estimates Committee conducted a hearing on the "likelihood of Australia being on the front line of a war between the US and China or between Japan and China". While it seems to me that talk of an actual armed conflict between the US and China at present seems far-fetched, President Obama has now nevertheless clearly staked the claim that his legacy will be a global drive towards renewable energy under American and not Chinese, guidance. Even though currently the US is involved in a rivalry with Russia via the Ukrainian conflict, the real competitors of the later 21st century will undoubtedly be the US and China.

In terms of renewable energy, the US is now trying to steal the Chinese momentum as the fore-runner that will guide the rest of the world. And this American guidance will supposedly unite the globe in an effort to ward off certain climate calamity. But the sad fact is that certain scientists have already indicated that these efforts will be too (little too) late. The renowned ecologist and paleoclimatolgist Curt Stager has, for instance, been arguing for some time now that "our fossil fuel emissions will interfere with climates for much longer than most of us, scientists included, yet realize. Even in the best-case scenario, the world won’t fully recover for tens of thousands of years and possibly much longer". The Chinese are famous for their ability to plan long-term and the Obama legacy project (CPP) arguably also aims at a future beyond immediate election cycles, but whether either nation will be able to alter the world's emissions of greenhouse gases and undo their negative effect on the earth's climate seems dubious. Whether Chinese or American, the future of humanity seems to be in dire peril . . .

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