Coal Tattoo

U.N. Conference: Cancun, climate and coal

In this image released by Greenpeace on Sunday Nov. 28, 2010, a giant balloon rises next to the Chichen-Itza pyramids in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Sunday Nov. 28, 2010. Facing another year without a global deal to curb climate change, the world’s nations will spend the next two weeks in Cancun, Mexico, during the annual conference of the 193-nation U.N. climate treaty, debating how to mobilize money to cope with what’s coming, as temperatures climb, ice melts, seas rise and the climate that nurtured man shifts in unpredictable ways. (AP Photo/Greenpeace)

A dispatch from The Associated Press set the tone for the start of the latest international climate talks in Canun, Mexico:

Frustrated at past failures, climate negotiators began a critical two-week conference Monday with a call from Mexico’s president to think beyond their nations’ borders and consider all humanity as they bargain over an agreement to fight global warming.

“The atmosphere is indifferent to the sovereignty of states,” President Felipe Calderon said in the keynote speech opening the conference in this well-guarded coastal resort.

“It would be a tragedy if our inability to see beyond our personal interests, our group or national interests makes us fail,” Calderon said in a speech to 15,000 delegates, business leaders, activists and journalists.

Three years of talks have been stymied by a sometimes acrimonious divide among industrial and developing countries about their responsibilities in fighting climate change and accepting legal limits on how much they can continue to pollute.

The Cancun conference is the first full U.N. meeting since the letdown last December of the Copenhagen summit, which brought 120 world leaders to the Danish capital in an abortive attempt to adopt an overarching accord governing emissions of made-made greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

Instead, that summit ended with a three-page political statement, including an intention to raise $100 billion annually to help poor countries fight the effects of climate change and move toward green development that does not rely on fossil fuels.

The Guardian had an interesting piece headlined, Let’s Look Beyond Carbon:

The political reality post-Copenhagen, however, means this just isn’t going to happen. We shouldn’t give up on the idea of a binding cap on global emissions in the long term. But right now we need interim measures that countries can agree on, which will ensure we start moving in the right direction. The best must not become the enemy of the good. Dogmatically held positions should be set aside to find solutions.

It’s unlikely that countries will sign up to binding limits on carbon dioxide unless growth can be decoupled from the use of fossil fuels. One way to do that would be to introduce rules to reduce the carbon intensity of our economies first. Instead of trying to agree binding emissions caps on whole countries, negotiators could agree Emissions Performance Standards (EPS) across specific industries and sectors – placing limits on the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy.

A natural place to start would be electricity generation. Coal-burning power stations in the UK currently emit about 900 grams of carbon dioxide (gCO2) per kilowatt hour (KWh) of electricity produced – but could be brought down to 130 gCO2/ KWh if fitted with CCS technology to capture the carbon and store it. Gas plants are cleaner at roughly 400 g per KWh, but could get as low as 60 g if CCS becomes viable. Nuclear power emissions are as low as 20g per KWh and some renewables even lower.

A giant bottle displaying a message inside it and displed by the organization Oxfam International, sits on the beach next to children playing in Cancun, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010.

And on Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin explains that Coal Trends Still Rule Climate Talks:

… CO2 is king in projections of warming for centuries, if not millenniums, to come. The problem, of course, is that coal combustion remains king in industrial and industrializing economies, with China’s coal plans being the dominant factor in greenhouse projections for decades to come.

No one foresees the torrid pace of growth of coal mining and burning in China in recent years as the new normal. Growth will have to slow, experts say, but not on account of CO2 emissions.

If China orders a slowing in consumption of its vast coal supplies (which looks increasingly likely, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article) it will be more to blunt the pain of an eventual peak in production than to limit emissions of CO2. The coal will be burned, in other words, just over a longer time span. And China is of course the dominant market for growing exports in coal.

Among other things, Andy cites a report from the Heritage Foundation, arguing that Climate Change Is Still About Chinese Coal:

In 2000, the official figure for Chinese coal production was 880 million tons. In less than a decade, it more than tripled to 2.96 billion tons for 2009. In the first quarter of this year, coal production jumped another 28 percent. China, which was a net exporter of coal as recently as 2008, was the world’s largest importer of coal in the first three quarters of this year and far more in the way of imports are on the way.

China is spending a good deal of money on “green energy” and it is constantly praised for doing so. The praise is somewhat strange: the supposed switch from “black” to “green” has done nothing at all to stop coal: production growth was faster in 2008 than 2007, despite the financial crisis, and steady in 2009 before accelerating early this year. It very well may be that the PRC now accounts for half the world’s coal use.

This is the other facet of Chinese coal policy and is just as disturbing. “It may very well be” that China accounts for half the world’s coal use because there is no longer an easy way to know. China stopped publishing coal production figures in March, possibly because it was about to cross the threshold of half of global consumption and certainly because the coal figures are embarrassing on a number of dimensions.

Interestingly, The New York Times had a piece citing Wikileaks documents that indicate:

The Obama administration leaned heavily on Saudi Arabia to associate itself with the Copenhagen Accord climate change agreement, confidential State Department memos show.

The handful of climate-related cables — among the hundreds of thousands of secret and unclassified messages released by the whistle-blower organization Wikileaks — show the United States put climate change at the center of its foreign policy relationship with the oil-producing giant in the months after last year’s blowout U.N. climate summit in Denmark.

“You have the opportunity to head off a serious clash over climate change,” James Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as she prepared for a February visit to the kingdom.

“Saudi officials are very concerned that a climate change treaty would significantly reduce their income just as they face significant costs to diversify their economy,” Smith wrote. “The King is particularly sensitive to avoid Saudi Arabia being singled out as the bad actor, particularly on environmental issues.”