MAC: Mines and Communities

Hansen finds US presents greatest wall to halting global warming

Published by MAC on 2010-12-21
Source: Countercurrents, PlanetArk, ENS

And looks to China instead

James Hansen - the NASA scientist widely (if misleadingly) credited with "discovering" global warming - has returned to the theme from which he is rarely absent.

Burning fossil fuels, in particular coal, is killing the planet, he says.

Carbon cap, trading and offsets aren't going to halt the deadly trend. So long as fossil fuels are subsidised and traded at well-below their externalised social and environmental costs, we're all on a hiding to nothing.

Now - after a colourful visit to China - Hansen suggests that its regime may be prepared to commit to an absolute and rising carbon tax, although the country is now the largest  single source of global greenhouse gas emissions.

As for his home country, he finds it to be locked into "a system designed by big banks and fossil fuel interests that assures continued fossil fuel addiction".

For a previous MAC story, see: Hansen's pipe dream - or cold realism?

China Can Slow Global Warming If The US Won't

By James Hansen

9 December 2010

Part one of a two-part series, "China and the Barbarians"

The author and his grandson Connor model official
protest and Indiana Jones hats.

I was in China when U.S. midterm elections caused some people to become more pessimistic about the fate of the planet and humanity. In contrast, I became more optimistic, for two reasons, both related to China. Here I explain the first reason for optimism.

In an op-ed, "Chinese Leadership Needed to Save Humanity," published in the South China Morning Post on November 3, I argue that China should impose a rising fee (tax) on carbon, for China's own sake and for the future of humanity.

Not really China's fault until now

First let's clarify that China is not largely responsible for climate change, even though its CO2 emissions are now largest. Climate change is proportional to integrated (cumulative) emissions 1. The fact that most early historic emissions are no longer in the atmosphere - having been distributed among the ocean, atmosphere, soil, and vegetation reservoirs - is almost exactly compensated by the fact that the early emissions have operated longer on the climate system.

Below are charts for current emissions and cumulative emissions. The United States bears 27% responsibility for cumulative emissions. China is second at 9.5%. On a per capita basis, the United States is more responsible than China by about a factor of ten.

Fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2009 (left) and cumulative emissions (right).

Nevertheless, China's annual emissions have rocketed past those of the United States and other developed countries, and, if they continue on their current growth path, China will become the principal cause of climate change within the next few decades. Also, as shown in the graphs below, the task of getting global CO2 emissions to stabilize can be accomplished only if the rapidly growing emissions of all developing countries can be stabilized and begin to decline over the next few decades.

How can I possibly be optimistic about that?

We'll always use the cheapest energy, dirty or not

I must start with a fundamental law: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, they will continue to be burned. This law is as certain as the law of gravity. No "caps," "goals" for future emissions, or other self-deceptions can alter this fact. Caps only alter who burns the fuel and the pace of burning - they will not leave fossil fuels in the ground, as science demands. Caps are also inherently disingenuous - a pretense that the price of fossil fuel energy does not need to steadily rise, an attempt to circumvent the "law of gravity" 2.

Fossil fuels are cheapest in part because they are subsidized, but mainly because they do not pay their costs to society. Enormous world-wide medical costs due to air and water pollution, primarily caused by fossil fuels, are borne by the public, not fossil fuel companies. Nor do they pay for environmental damage or the costs of climate change, which instead will be shouldered especially by our children and grandchildren.

These facts expose the crucial element for solution of the energy and climate problem. A steadily rising carbon fee must be collected from fossil fuel companies. All funds should go to the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations. As the fee rises, fossil fuels will become increasingly unprofitable and will be phased out, replaced by carbon-free energy and increased energy efficiency. This is the economically-efficient path to a clean energy future - the cure to fossil fuel addiction.

Beijing freer than Washington?

Wait a minute! If a carbon fee makes economic sense and saves the planet, why is the United States, for example, not following that path? Fossil fuel interests reign in Washington and other capitals. Big money forces legislatures to hatch ineffectual schemes such as "cap-and-trade-with-offsets," a system designed by big banks and fossil fuel interests that assures continued fossil fuel addiction.

Is there any hope that China will take the game-changing first step by adopting a carbon tax? Why would they do so? Why would this be the harbinger of a global framework?

I believe that China has powerful reasons to place a rising fee on carbon: (1) China will suffer more than most nations from changing climate and rising sea level, (2) China has horrific air and water pollution from fossil fuels, (3) China wants to avoid the enormous costs and burdens that accompany fossil fuel addiction, (4) there is great economic advantage in having the leading low-carbon technologies.

All four reasons are old news. My optimism (Part 1) that China can, indeed must, lead the world toward a global solution is not based only on these reasons. It also is based on insight that emerged during the Beijing Forum, exposing a fundamental flaw in my prior reasoning about the framework needed to achieve an effective global agreement - as discussed below.

I attended conferences in Hong Kong and Beijing, losing track of the number of meetings and talks, expertly arranged by Christine Loh. Christine, I was told by others, was a primary force in helping bring order to Hong Kong development, limiting expansion into the harbor.

An aside: I was able to escape meetings one afternoon. Two warmly hospitable graduate students of Prof. Shao Min accompanied Anniek and me to the Great Wall. The three of them pooped out way before reaching the peak, but they graciously waited while I, heroically, not only ascended to the top, but near the summit vanquished three barbarian would-be invaders. Next week-end I can tell grandson Connor of my feat in resoundingly defeating the barbarians, at least half a dozen of them.

As I was descending, an elderly Chinese man proffered a gold medal - conveniently he had a metal etching tool that he used to inscribe my name on the gold medal. Other words on the medal are in Chinese, but I can inform Connor that they are surely an expression of gratitude for how, after fierce hand-to-hand combat, I summarily did in more than a score of barbarians, saving the local population. Only shortcoming: I failed to take my official Indiana Jones hat to China, and no photos were taken of the great skirmish (The picture at the beginning of this story shows Connor in my Indiana Jones hat, a Grandfather's Day gift from him - he had forgotten his own, one size smaller, Indiana Jones hat that day).

Fast growth and smart growth

Now back to the real world. The physical development of Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and other populous areas in China is awesome, even though big challenges remain, pollution not the least of them. However, what impressed me most was the focused rational approach to dealing with the challenges, epitomized by Dr. Jiang Kejun, the lead speaker in the session "Global Environmental Policies and National Strategies" at the Beijing Forum.

Jiang Kejun laid out sector-by-sector projections of transitions to low-carbon and no-carbon energies and improved energy efficiency that would allow CO2 emission growth to be slowed and then reversed over the next few decades. Technology development is supported, and, when lower carbon technology becomes available, efficiency standards are promptly ratcheted downward. Most encouragingly, there is recognition that this strategy requires a rising carbon price for most successful results. The Chinese authorities appear to grasp that rapid attainment of the tipping points at which clean energies quickly displace dirty energy requires an economic incentive.

Fossil fuel CO2 emissions by country (RoE, W = Rest of Europe, World).

One reason to believe this approach will work is the scale of manufacturing in China. The scale is so great that the unit price of new technologies can be brought down, putting China in a position to sell carbon-efficient technologies to the rest of the world. That is important, because, as the charts above reveal, emissions from other developing countries are increasing as fast as those of China. But those countries, too, have every reason to minimize fossil fuel addiction.

The Chinese approach stands in stark contrast to that in the United States. As described in Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, my "A-Team" (student-teacher-researcher team) showed years ago (as did others) that existing technology would allow a 30 percent vehicle efficiency improvement, saving $100 billion per year in imported oil costs. Yet our automobile efficiency standards were stuck for decades. I testified in court on the side of states trying to force better standards, e.g., Vermont vs. Auto Manufacturers, while our federal government stood in court alongside the polluters.

We "won" the court case, yet appeals stretched the time of action for years. I came away feeling that not only is it nearly impossible to get effective legislation through Congress, but that the special interests can prevent implementation almost interminably. Democracy of the sort intended in 1776 probably could have dealt with climate change, but not the fossil-money-"democracy" that now rules the roost in Washington.

If the US won't lead, then we'll just have to follow

There was a flaw in my prior thinking that became clear to me during my visit to China. I had argued previously that global action to stem climate change required agreement between China and the United States for a rising carbon fee. That would work, but it is not realistic - such a treaty requires approval by the dysfunctional U.S. Congress.

However, there is a way around that, which becomes obvious with the realization that an initially modest carbon fee is in China's own interest. After agreement with other nations, e.g., the European Union, China and these nations could impose rising internal carbon fees. Existing rules of the World Trade Organization would allow collection of a rising border duty on products from all nations that do not have an equivalent internal carbon fee or tax.

The United States then would be forced to make a choice. It could either address its fossil fuel addiction with a rising carbon fee and supportive national investment policies or it could accept continual descent into second-rate and third-rate economic well-being. The United States has great potential for innovation, but it will not be unleashed as long as fossil fuel interests have a stranglehold on U.S. energy policies.

Once in days of yore I went to dinner in New York's Chinatown with a group of colleagues including one of Chinese ancestry (probably Inez Fung or Wei-Chyung Wang, but conceivably Kuo-Nan Liou or Yuk Yung) who informed the restaurant proprietor that the others in the group were "good barbarians." This recommendation got us into a part of the restaurant reserved for local people, with food not spoiled by western predilections - it was excellent.

I have the impression that Chinese leadership takes a long view, perhaps because of the long history of their culture, in contrast to the West with its short election cycles. At the same time China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly. The leaders seem to seek the best technical information and do not brand as a hoax that which is inconvenient. This is not to say that fossil fuel interests have no power within China, but they do not rule the roost.

China cannot stabilize Earth's climate alone. If, as I hope, they conclude that a rising carbon fee is in their interest, the question will become: can they find a sufficient number of "good barbarians" who will abandon greenwash and participate in effective policy?

I will discuss a second reason for optimism in Part 2 of this series.


1 Hansen, J. et al., Dangerous human-made interference with climate: A GISS modelE study. Atmos. Chem. Phys., 7, 2287-2312, doi:10.5194/acp-7-2287-2007.

2 It is not feasible to have a global cap on CO2 emissions, and a partial cap reduces demand, making the fuel cheaper for someone else to burn. In contrast, a carbon fee can readily have global effect, via border duties on products from nations that do not have an equivalent carbon fee. Even a national carbon cap is not a realistic approach. However, a cap can be used effectively for a sector (e.g., utilities), as a supplement to a carbon fee.

-- James Hansen

Reprinted in Transition Voice with permission of the author.

James E. Hansen, PhD, heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Hansen is best known for his research in the field of climatology, his testimony on climate change to congressional committees in 1988 that helped raise broad awareness of global warming, and his advocacy of action to limit the impacts of climate change. His first book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, was published in 2009.

U.S. Court To Hear Utilities' Emissions Suit Appeal

By James Vicini


7 December 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday that it would hear an appeal by four big coal-burning utilities of a ruling that a group of states and New York City can proceed with a global-warming lawsuit seeking to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of the power companies.

The justices agreed to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals court that reinstated a 2004 lawsuit by eight states, New York City and three land trusts claiming the utilities have created a public nuisance by contributing to global warming.

American Electric Power Co Inc, Southern Co, Xcel Energy Inc and Cinergy Corp, which Duke Energy Corp acquired in 2006, said in the appeal that the case involved political questions for Congress and the president, not the judiciary.

The states -- California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin -- and the other plaintiffs urged the top court to reject the appeal by the utilities. That would have allowed the lawsuit to go forward.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case most likely in March, with a ruling expected by the end of June. It will be the most important environmental case of the term, and the biggest since the Supreme Court's ruling in 2007 that U.S. environmental officials can regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal-fired power plants emit about twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas-fired plants. Nuclear power plans emit virtually no greenhouse gases. Scientists say greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide warm the earth by trapping solar heat in the atmosphere.

A federal judge initially dismissed the lawsuit, ruling the question of whether carbon dioxide emissions should be reduced was political, not judicial. But the appeals court disagreed.

The Supreme Court, in agreeing to hear the appeal disregarded the advice of the Obama administration, which represented one of the defendant utilities in the original lawsuit, the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority.

The administration urged the Supreme Court to set aside the appeals court ruling and send the case back to New York for further proceedings to consider recent actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address carbon dioxide emissions.

(Editing by Derek Caney and Maureen Bavdek)

U.S. Supreme Court to Rule in Key Greenhouse Gas Lawsuit

Environmental News Service (ENS)

7 December 2010

WASHINGTON, DC - The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it will hear a definitive greenhouse gas lawsuit on whether federal law allows states and private parties to sue utilities for contributing to global warming.

In American Electric Power v. Connecticut, a power company asks the court to rule on enforcement of emissions caps, seeking to overturn a ruling by a lower court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

American Electric Power is joined in the lawsuit by Duke Energy, Southern Company, Xcel Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority, a nonprofit public utility owned by the federal government.

The John E. Amos coal-fired power plant in West Virginia is owned and operated by Appalachian Power, a subsidiary of American Electric Power. (Photo by Cathy Haglund)

The high court will rule on whether states and private parties may seek emissions caps on utilities for their alleged contribution to global climate change.

The justices will also decide whether a cause of action to cap carbon dioxide emissions can be implied under federal common law.

Finally, the justices will decide whether claims seeking to cap carbon dioxide emissions based on a court's weighing of the potential risks of climate change against the socioeconomic utility of defendants' conduct would be governed by "judicially discoverable and manageable standards" or could be resolved without "initial policy determination[s] of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor recused herself from the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case, because she participated in the Second Circuit ruling before joining the Supreme Court earlier this year. Her absence could mean a split 4-4 ruling, which would leave the lower court decision in effect.

Alice Kaswan, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, explains that this case arose when Connecticut, along with several other states and public interest organizations, brought a public nuisance action against the five largest U.S. electric utility companies. The plaintiffs sought injunctive relief in the form of emissions limits on the utilities' facilities.

"In 2005, the district court held that applying public nuisance law to the problem of climate change presented a nonjusticiable political question, and dismissed the case. In 2009, the Second Circuit reversed, re-opening the courthouse door to climate nuisance cases," Kaswan explains, writing on the Center for Progressive Reform blog.

This case is timely because the U.S. EPA is about to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act's Prevention of Significant Deterioration, PSD, program this January, a move that Republicans and industry groups have been trying to block.

"The question is whether regulating stationary sources under the PSD program amounts to the type of 'comprehensive' regulation that would displace the common law in this context," Kaswan says.

But, she explains, the PSD regulation imposes federal emission control requirements only on new and modified sources of emissions, not on existing sources, unless those sources are modified.

American Electric Power v. Connecticut, by contrast, targets existing stationary sources of greenhouse gases.

Shown here emitting greenhouse gases, the TVA's coal-burning Paradise power plant is on the Green River in western Kentucky. (Photo courtesy TVA)

The Obama administration intervened in support of allowing the Supreme Court to hear this case. "The administration claims that the EPA has gotten busy implementing the Clean Air Act with respect to greenhouse gas emissions and that allowing federal common law nuisance claims to proceed would interfere with the regulatory initiative," explains Douglas Kysar, a professor at Yale Law School and a member scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform.

President Barack Obama and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson have repeatedly said they want limits on greenhouse gas emissions to be legislated by Congress. Although the House of Representatives passed a greenhouse gas cap and trade bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, the Senate has failed to pass similar legislation. With the balance of power shifting Republican after the mid-term elections in November, the likelihood of such a bill making it through Congress in the next two years is nil.

The states of Indiana, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming joined in asking the Supreme Court to rule in this case.

The states argue that the theory of liability advanced in this case has no limiting principle. "It would permit federal courts to impose CO2 emission limits on any entity in the country, and one might reasonably expect that the major economic actors of each state, not to mention state government entities themselves, would be on a list of potential defendants. What is more, this lawsuit threatens substantial impact on state environmental regulatory schemes," the states say in their brief to the high court.

The states maintain that if the matter is allowed to proceed in the district court, "it will embroil the federal judiciary in one of the most high profile and contentious political debates of our time."

"Reasonable people disagree on many levels over the extent to which greenhouse gas emissions, and especially CO2 emissions, should be regulated. Given that every industry, and indeed every living mammal, constantly emits CO2, such emissions cannot simply be banned outright, no matter what the harm to the environment," the states argue. "Someone has to make a policy determination as to how much is acceptable and how much is too much."

That "someone" is the eight Supreme Court justices who will rule on American Electric Power v. Connecticut.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also requested a Supreme Court hearing because of the "staggering economic implications" of the case.

The Chamber contends that unless the Supreme Court reverses the lower court decision a "host of new suits and, inevitably, inconsistent outcomes" will impose "punishing costs on businesses and consumers" that will become worse as this "emerging category of litigation sweeps the nation's courts."

The Chamber argues that "A meaningful and politically legitimate response to climate change must be national, indeed global, in nature, and must be fashioned by the politically accountable branches. The Chamber thus has a vital interest in ensuring that courts do not usurp the roles of the executive and legislative branches by entertaining this type of lawsuit."

A coal-reliant nation faces tough times

By Li Xing and Lan Lan

China Daily

8 December 2010

China, the most coal-reliant country in the world, will face a few hard decades to raise its clean energy to 50 percent by 2050 but the prospects are good, a senior climate change expert said on Monday.

Among a diversified package of energy solutions, nuclear power will play a key role in the long term, which is expected to account for about 15 percent of China's energy consumption by 2050, according to Du Xiangwan, chairman of China's National Climate Change Expert Commission.

"The country will face a critical transformation period in the next 20 to 40 years," Du said in an exclusive interview with China Daily.

China must explore multiple solutions in addressing its energy issues, given the vast size and population of the country, he said.

China remains the largest coal consumer in the world, with more than 70 percent of its consumption dependent on coal.

China's GDP growth has held steady at about 10 percent for many years - in which 3 to 4 percent was created at the expense of the environment, he said.

"It's the country's urgent inner demands to transfer to clean energies (and) we need economic growth, but at a high-quality level," Du said.

Although this undertaking would be long and strenuous, Du said he was "optimistic".

Nuclear energy is deemed as one of the most important solutions for China's energy challenges.

Du, who is also the director of the nuclear science and technology institute at Peking University, said that the most important precondition regarding nuclear security and radiation issues have already become controllable.

China currently has 28 nuclear reactors under construction - more than the world's total being built.

Besides aggressive efforts in China, the country has taken part in International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, an international project to design and build an experimental fusion reactor based on the "tokamak" concept. Nuclear fusion is considered the energy of the future.

"Nuclear will be one of the key energy pillars and is designed to account for about 15 percent of China's energy consumption by 2050," Du added.

China will increase its nuclear power capacity by 70 to 80 megawatts by 2020 - at which time nuclear power will increase from its current level of about 1 percent to some 4 percent in energy supply.

The country, so far, has made great progress in equipment manufacturing, and has attached great importance to cultivating talent.

More than 40 Chinese universities, for example, graduate young students majoring in nuclear power and engineering.

Natural gases - which are relatively cleaner compared with coal and oil - will have great potential in China and are expected to reach 10 percent by 2050, Du said.

These include conventional natural gases and also coal-seam gas, shale gas and gas hydrate, Du added.

However, China has a long way to go in achieving technological breakthroughs to reach a commercial scale, he said.

Efforts including a national smart grid development and energy efficiency enhancement in rural areas are also important elements.

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