17 November 2009: Hu and Obama talk climate

Presidents Hu and Obama met today in Beijing and climate change was high on the agenda (see BBC News: China and US ‘to work together’). China and the US are now the two largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for over a third of total annual global emissions – though the US has caused 30% of the total historical contribution, whereas China has contributed just 7%, and US per capita emissions are 23.5 tons, whereas China’s are 5.5 tons.

China is seriously threatened by climate change, through decreased rainfall and consequent desertification, severe weather events and the spread of diseases such as malaria. Tibet is particularly at risk, with obvious social and political implications. A 2005 article in the Chinese Science Bulletin used palaeoclimate records and historical data to show that, in ancient China, wars were more frequent in cold periods than in mild periods (see Chinese Science Bulletin 2005: Climate change, social unrest and dynastic transition in ancient China).

Of course, knowledge that there was more war in cold periods will not necessarily lead to action to prevent warming, but the Chinese government clearly realises that the climate needs to be controlled. China has by far the world’s largest installed solar thermal capacity to heat water; it accounts for about 66% of global installed capacity. It is constructing many new wind farms. It is also serious about demonstrating large-scale CCS. However, about one new coal power station, without CCS, is opened each week and, because China has no significant oil reserves but very significant coal reserves, it is now turning coal into liquid fuel to run vehicles, as South Africa does. A plant that does this in South Africa is the largest point source of carbon dioxide in the world. Rather than running vehicles on liquid coal, China should run vehicles on electricity, some of which could be from coal with CCS, some from nuclear, and an increasing amount from renewables.

Obama also needs to take radical action on transport, including raising fuel taxes to improve efficiency.  This week, he was encouraged to do this by leading figures from the automobile industry:

“Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation Inc, the largest US automobile retailer, told a conference in Detroit on Wednesday:

Consumer demand for fuel-efficient cars like Toyota Motor Corp’s Prius and Ford Motor Co’s Escape hybrid surged last summer as gasoline prices soared above $4 a gallon. But with the pressure off – the average U.S. retail gas price was $2.66 a gallon at the end of October, according to the benchmark Lundberg survey — Americans are once again buying fuel-hungry sport utility vehicles and other large cars. The U.S. allows the price of gasoline to go back and forth across this line where the consumers don’t care about fuel efficiency and where consumers do care about fuel efficiency.

Gradually raising gas taxes to the point where fuel costs $4 to $5 at the pump will do more to stimulate demand in next-generation vehicles like General Motors Co’s forthcoming Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid than any other policy initiatives, including raising the national fuel efficiency standards know as CAFE, Jackson said. Jerry York, a former GM board member and an adviser to billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, agreed. “Unless gas is $3.50 or $4 a gallon, consumers are not going to want to buy those cars,” York said on Monday”  (see Reuters: How to boost fuel efficiency? Raise taxes, executives say).

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