Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Anthropogenic GHG emissions in the developing economic powers.

with 2 comments

In the discussion of anthropogenic greenhouse forcing and the international political efforts to respond to it, there isn’t much of an opportunity for discussion before somebody brings up the issue of the rising economic powers like India and China. I agree that there is a very large base of emissions in China and other developing economies – they’re building the equivalent of one large power plant every 10 days or whatever it is, but they’re building all the nuclear power and hydro that they can as part of that – but if they need coal fired plants as well in this early stage of their industrialisation, then they will build those, too.

Considering that energy consumption in most developed countries has usually grown faster than GDP during the early stages of industrialization, it is to China’s credit that although its GDP has grown by 9.5% per year over the last 27 years, their carbon intensity per unit of GDP has decreased during that time, rather than increasing along with the GDP. The reduction in carbon intensity for China has meant that its CO2 increase of about 5.4% per year has amounted to a little over half of its GDP increase during the same 27 years. [1] They’re doing a far better job than was done in the industrialisation of the Western societies.

Only one seventh of the population of China has access to constant reliable electricity. Are we to stop those Chinese having that access to electricity? They want to have a prosperous, developed, first-world standard of technologically developed society for all the Chinese people – who the hell are we to say that they shouldn’t, or can’t?

They want to have the same opportunity for industrialisation that the West has had – even if that means pollution first, and clean up later, exactly like it was done in the Western societies.

If the Australian government[s] were in charge of China, you can be sure they’d be doing a far worse job in managing the rate of increase greenhouse gas emissions whilst allowing economic development.

In discussions of the politics of responding to anthropogenic greenhouse forcing in the Western world, you’ll often hear the “Blame China – it’s all their fault, not ours!” position. So, what to do?

Is the anthropogenic forcing of climate change such a pressing, important issue that suppose we’re going to tell the Chinese, no, you’re not allowed to industrialize right now – maybe in 50 years or 100 years when everyone else has slashed their CO2 emissions? You’re joking, clearly – what are you going to do, go to war to stop them from having the same standard of living that we have?

Or, perhaps, we can give them as much aid as possible to build clean alternatives to coal fired power plants while they’re industrialising?

Chinese officials claim that they are doing a great deal that is often not visible, especially for a country as large, populous, and rurally undeveloped as it is.

But working against that, and equally non-visible, is the role of multinational ventures in China in contributing to its greenhouse gas emissions. As of 2004, 23% of China’s CO2 emissions were coming from China’s manufacturing of products destined for the West, providing an interesting perspective on China’s large trade surplus. [1]

Over half of those emissions driven by demand from the West are from multinationals and foreign owned factories in China, suppling all the crap that is destined for Wal-Mart and department store shelves in Australia, the US, and other western nations. It is pointed out that China is being demonised for having become the place where the western world effectively outsources much of its pollution.

Do we have a responsibility to deal with this in China, instead of just blaming them and refusing to do anything ourselves since they’re supposedly the problem?

We could fully encourage and support the export of all nuclear power, wind turbine, solar, hydro, etc technologies from the Western nations into China – and, given the seriousness with which anthropogenic greenhouse forcing is viewed as a grave issue, give them as much direct financial aid as we can to build these technologies as an alternative to new coal fired power plants.

Instead of, say, building a nuclear power plant in Australia, Germany, Italy, the US or UK or where ever to replace a coal fired power plant, what if we could just give the money to China and they will build them instead of coal plants – talk about an emissions trading scheme! That way, we’re making the same mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, we’ve silenced the “It’s all China’s fault, not our problem” talk, and we’ve also dealt with the political bickering in Australia (and a few other Western countries) over acceptance of nuclear power.

(Of course, this is a little hard to reconcile with the usual Western approach where power plants, nuclear, fossil or otherwise, are built and operated by corporations who can sell their electricity for profit – it really only makes sense in the context of nations operating under state ownership of power plants, like, say France.)



Written by Luke Weston

July 10, 2008 at 11:30 am

2 Responses

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  1. interesting approach, give china the funds to build nuclear there. You’re right, this is a big problem, because i don’t think anyone has the right to say they don’t deserve our standard of living. In fact, isn’t that in it’s root a problem we caused with our own influential culture? I do think, though that China has one advantage most western nations didn’t have when they developed and that’s advanced scientific knowledge. I know it’s not right to deny them the creature comforts i’ve come to enjoy, but at this point in science and technology it’s pretty deplorable to think that it’s acceptable to make a mess now and clean it up later, and quite frankly more expensive in the long run. I really do hope some encouragement, financial and otherwise, can be given to china to try to build sustainably.


    July 10, 2008 at 8:24 pm

  2. I know I keep coming here and offering comments when I suppose I should not be poking my nose in, but the scale of this is just mind boggling. At the moment electrical power in China is being in the main directed to Industry and the Commercial sector, and this is the baseload area that the environmentalists (and Senator Milne) just do not understand. Currently the electrical power is going 80% to that sector while in the US, it runs close to 62%, which is also close to how Australia is. To that end, in China, the average householder has only one in seven access to reliable electricity.
    Going on the US figures for total power and its distribution, China will need six times the power they currently have, just to have the same standard of living we take so for granted here in Australia.
    That means if they currently have 500,000 MW nameplate capacity of power then they will need to increase this by 2,500,000MW.
    If we only use huge baseload plants of 2,000MW, then that means 1250 plants.
    If the basic coal fired plant costs 2.5 Billion at best estimate then you’re looking at more than 3 Trillion dollars. For Nuclear or hydro, then multiply that by 3 so now we’re close to 10 Trillion dollars, again an optimistic outlook. With added gas fired Combined cycle, Wind, solar and others , then conceivably you’re looking at doubling that again.
    Also keep in mind that the coal fired plants of that size will use around 4.5 Million tons of coal per year, so that front end cost is misleading because with that sort of coal consumption, you can add a further 32 Trillion, and they get the bulk of that coal from Australia. Those figures for coal go on a licensed life for the plant of 50 years and are quoted for the current price of coal at $125 per ton. Keep in mind this is in addition to what they already have.

    These figures are so astronomical, they are (literally) unbelievable.
    Currently, the US is increasing it’s total power by around 1.3% per annum.
    Australia runs at around 1% increase each year.
    China has been increasing each year since 1990 by 10%, and in the last couple of years increasing by close to 12.5%

    The source for all these figures is an absolutely monstrous US website, The US Government’s Energy Information Administration.
    For the international figures, at the page after the link scroll to the bottom left under the heading ‘International Data’ and then click on Capacity. It has downloadble XL spreadsheets.

    Remember though, I’ve been visiting that site for close on 4 months now and I’m lucky if I’ve scratched the surface.

    Again, sorry to take up so much space.



    July 12, 2008 at 3:53 am

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