What are the governments of the world’s powerful countries doing about climate change and global warming?
Short Term: There are enough intentions and at least some actions on the part of two of the three top emitters viz., China and India. The United States is going through an uncertain phase in its action on global warming.
Let’s look at the three top CO2 emitters worldwide – China, USA & India – and reflect on what actions they are taking on Climate Change.
With the country notorious for its air pollution, the Chinese government is taking significant steps against CO2 emissions – in its own interest at least, if not in the global interest. The country has also vowed that its CO2 emissions would reach their maximum by 2030.
Here are some significant measures that the country’s government has taken in this regard:
- Limiting coal use – China put a three-year moratorium on new coal mines recently, and it’s been shutting down existing coal mines.
- Carbon trading – Starting 2018, China is expected to launch a nationwide carbon market. It will cover six of the biggest carbon-emitting sectors, starting with coal-fired electricity generation.
- Cleaning up cars and trucks – China, the largest car market in the world, is pulling old, inefficient cars off the road, providing incentives for buying hybrids and electric cars, and enforcing stricter fuel-efficiency standards for new cars.
- Making buildings more energy efficient – A few years back, China started issuing requirements for buildings to be given energy-efficiency upgrades. The energy savings are just beginning to be felt, but given that buildings can last for decades or even centuries, there could be a long-term payoff from this action.
- Building renewable capacity – Significant investments are being made into wind and solar energy. China committed recently that at least 20% of its energy portfolio will come from non–fossil fuel sources by 2030.
- Increasing nuclear power generation – The country is also working to increase the proportion of nuclear power (15 reactors now in operation and 26 reactors under construction), natural gas and renewable energy, and is promoting the clean use of coal through constructing several demonstration thermal power plants with “almost zero emissions.” (see also: Can nuclear energy reduce global warming?)
- Building high-speed rail – To reduce transportation emissions, China is rapidly building high-speed rail.
In sum, China is doing something for clean energy and environment in ways typical of that country – doing things big, but clearly driven by its domestic pain points and compulsions than by what the rest of the world wants.
The United States reads like an entirely different story compared to China.
While the Chinese government is pulling out all stops to curb CO2 emissions with vigorous state policies, the US government’s response has been less consistent over the last few years. There has been significant inconsistency ever since Republican Party’s Donald Trump took over as President.
- Not a Signatory of Paris Accord – And, as of Dec 2017, the US happens to be the ONLY country in the world that is not a signatory of the Paris Accord (the country, under Obama, originally signed the agreement in 2016, but in 2017 pulled out after Trump became President).
- Diverse Political Perspectives & Agenda – Different political parties in the US have highly divergent views in the context of Climate Change. The Democratic Party plays an active and positive role of climate change. The Republican Party either denies or at best is ambivalent on the existence of global warming and continues to expand the energy industries and curb efforts towards a more sustainable environmental. The Green Party advocates for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and increased government regulation. Other parties, such as the Libertarian Party, and the Constitution Party possess various views of climate change. As a result of these differences between parties, even with a number of environmental acts introduced in the Congress over the years, the ground level impacts of these are suspect.
- A Skeptical President – The current US president, Donald Trump, is seen as someone who will not go the extra yard to contribute towards climate change mitigation, In fact, in his early 2017 budget proposal, President Trump presented cutting about 31% of the EPA as a result of budget decreases.
- Better Support from States – While the federal government’s achievements in the context of climate change actions have been spotty, across the country, many states, regional organizations and cities are achieving real emissions reductions as they take action on climate change. Their actions include increasing renewable energy generation, selling agricultural carbon sequestration credits, and encouraging efficient energy use. Some of the states in the forefront of Climate change action are Arizona, California, Connecticut & Maryland. A number of initiatives such as Clean Energy Standards, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Western Climate Initiative, Powering the Plains Initiative, Mayors National Climate Action Agenda and the United States Climate Alliance represent efforts from diverse states and non-governmental organizations.
In sum, the United States presents an ambivalent picture in the context of climate change action – its current federal government is opposed to any significant action, but many state governments, as well as key stakeholders such as the industry, are for taking big and bold steps to reduce global warming. As a result, steps are being taken, but at scales much lower than what it could have been with an environment-friendly central government.
India pledged under the Copenhagen Accord to reduce its CO2 intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) by 20-25% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels, and according to some estimates, the country appears to be doing reasonably well in its efforts.
Some of the critical tools India is using to achieve the targeted emissions reduction are:
- Renewable Energy Investments – Significant investments in renewable energy, especially in solar and wind power.
- Disincentivising Use of Coal – A tax on coal has raised $2.85 billion for India’s clean energy fund as of 2017.
- Energy Efficiency and Conservation – India’s National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency implemented the Perform, Achieve and Trade (PAT) Mechanism, covering the country’s largest industrial and power generation facilities, and in future, other sectors.
- Focus on Transportation Sector – In early 2014, India announced new vehicle fuel-economy standards of 4.8 liters per 100 kilometers (49 MPG) by 2021-2022, a 15% improvement. Biofuel legislation has set a target of 20 percent blending of ethanol and biodiesel in 2017.
- Smart Cities – The Indian government launched an initiative to create 100 “smart cities” with better transport systems, utilities, and energy networks to address the challenges of urban growth.
- Reforestation – Reforestation is another priority on India’s environmental agenda, with plans underway to almost a million hectares of forest per year, coupled with efforts to improve forest management and conservation.
All the above initiatives are expected to help offset 11% of India’s annual emissions.
In sum: India is a chaotic democracy and also a soft state. It’s climate change efforts reflect these – the country has has aggressive plans similar to those of China, but is lagging behind in implementation in many of its targets. However, it can be said that a reasonably strong start has been made in key sectors such as renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Read also: My review of Bill Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.