President Obama has announced proposals to reduce US car emissions by 34% by 2016, by setting US-wide standards for fuel efficiency. These will be based on the Californian standards, which the motor industry had vigorously opposed through lobbying and legal challenges. However, now the car companies have been bailed out with public money, their ability to resist progress has been undercut. The objectives are to reduce US dependency on imported oil and to reduce emissions.
Clearly, this is only a start. The administration’s aim is to increase fuel efficiency by only ten miles per gallon, when much more is possible and necessary. The Obama plan will not even take average US fuel efficiency up to Asian or European levels. But the US is the biggest global car market and, due to weak land-use planning rules that have led to ribbon-development along roads, is more car-dependent than other countries. So, it is welcome that Obama has at least begun to make progress and the President is also promoting electric vehicles, which are better for the climate, whatever the source of the electricity used (see Electric vehicles).
It was also reported this week (by the Guardian newspaper) that the Bush administration had held constructive talks with the Chinese government about controlling climate change. These led to a three-point memorandum of understanding covering the following issues:
- Using existing technologies to produce a 20% cut in carbon emissions by 2010.
- Co-operation on carbon capture and storage, and fuel efficiency for cars.
- The US and China signing up to a global climate change deal in Copenhagen.
Persuading China to sign up to a global deal at Copenhagen in December is essential. It is now either the first or second higher polluting nation in the world (depending who you read) – the US being the other, although Chinese emissions per head of population are only about a fifth of US ones and China’s historic contribution is minute compared to American or European emissions.
China also urgently needs to develop economically even more to eradicate poverty. However, this must not be powered by excessive and increasing use of coal, as it is at present. Carbon capture and storage is an essential part of the solution and so are renewables. China has immense solar and wind resources, which must be harnessed, and renewable gas from human sewage in Anaerobic Digesters (see Renewable heat) would have additional benefits to China. The north of the country does not have enough fresh water – the water of the Yellow River is seriously over-extracted, so the Chinese government is proposing to pump water from the south. This will require a lot of electricity, and will force those who live ‘in the way’ to move. Much of the water from the river is used for industry, including coal power stations and the water that remains is seriously polluted by sewage. Therefore, a much better approach would be to use the sewage to produce renewable gas, which could be used for electricity, and for heating and cooling.
Yesterday, climate was top of the agenda at the EU-China summit in Prague. The Chinese ambassador to the EU said in advance that China is intent on shouldering its climate responsibility and will not “pursue its own development at the expense of others’ interest”. Europeans and Americans have done exactly that, so have a moral responsibility to reduce the damage they are still causing. We must also help China and other developing countries get richer in a low-carbon way. This is not just a moral imperative, it is necessary for our own self-interest.