SINGAPORE — Two recent news reports have underscored China’s voracious appetite for oil and the impact of unrestrained burning of coal and other fossil fuels on global climate change. Both point to the need for Japan, the United States, Canada, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — the six Asia-Pacific members of the International Energy Agency — to use their influence to help bring China and India into the IEA, the leading international organization for energy research and cooperation.
China’s rise as an energy titan was in the spotlight again this month when it reported that oil imports surged to a record level in March despite sky-high prices. China imported an average of just over 4 million barrels a day, nearly as much as Japan — the world’s second biggest economy.
Meanwhile, a research team at the University of California has concluded that China’s global-warming emissions have been underestimated and probably passed those of the U.S., long the world’s top polluter, in the last two years. The report, to be published next month, warns that unless China radically changes its energy policies, its increases in greenhouse gases will be several times larger than the cuts in emissions that rich nations are struggling to make under the Kyoto Protocol by the time it ends in 2012.
These are just two bits of an increasingly alarming picture that suggests we may be fighting a losing battle to combat climate change. Of course, it would be unfair to expect major emerging economies, like those of China and India, to rein in their emissions unless advanced industrialized nations are prepared to lead the way. Most emerging economies have much lower per capita emission levels than rich countries. They are also responsible for a much smaller portion of the world’s accumulated greenhouse gases. They want to narrow the development gap with advanced economies and provide their people with better living standards. This divergence makes it very difficult to reach global agreement on how to tackle climate change and share the costs.
Yet Asia will be among the regions worst affected by climate change. New scientific research presented in Vienna on April 14 found that sea levels around the world could rise by as much as 1.5 meters by the end of this century as a result of global warming. This is substantially more than the maximum rise of 43 cm forecast by scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their landmark report late last year to the United Nations. The new research takes into account the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, as well as the melting of mountain glaciers and the thermal expansion of oceans as the world warms.
Nearly 40 percent of Asians live within 100 km of the coast. Coastal zones, especially densely populated mega-deltas in South, Southeast and Northeast Asia, will be at greatest risk due to increased flooding from the sea and storm surges. Some of these deltas will also be at risk from flooding coming down the rivers that flow through the deltas to the sea, as glaciers in the Himalayas and on China’s Qinghai-Tibetan plateau melt, unleashing too much water at first and then too little for the several hundred million people in China, India and Bangladesh who depend on the flow.
The international negotiations to mitigate climate change and prevent it from causing a global catastrophe aim to reach a deal by the end of next year. This will be a tough target to achieve. But it would help if China and India became full members of the IEA because energy use and climate change are two sides of the same coin. China and India are becoming mega-polluters as they burn more fossil fuels to power their economic growth.
The IEA warned last year that the consequences of unfettered growth in global energy demand would be serious for all countries. It said that if governments around the world stick to existing policies, global energy needs would be well over 50 percent higher in 2030 than today. Together, China and India would account for 45 percent of the increase in global primary energy demand in this business-as-usual scenario. The fossil fuels most responsible for global warming would continue to dominate the fuel mix.
Among them, coal is set to grow most rapidly, driven largely by demand for electricity in China and India. Coal is a huge generator of carbon dioxide, CO2 the main greenhouse gas. As a result, the IEA said that energy-related emissions of CO2 would rise from 27 billion metric tons in 2005 to 42 billion tons in 2030, an increase of 57 percent, unless carbon capture and storage can be widely harnessed before then in leading coal using countries. The IEA added that it expected India to become the third biggest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S. by around 2015.
With 27 industrialized oil importers in its ranks, including 21 European nations, the IEA has a number of basic aims. They include developing alternative energy sources to oil, natural gas and coal; using energy more efficiently; promoting international collaboration on energy technology; and helping to integrate environmental and energy policies.
These are all areas in which China and India have a strong interest. At the invitation of the IEA, their senior energy officials and experts took part for the first time last December in the work of the main policy committees of the Paris-based IEA. The cooperation between the IEA and Asia’s two emerging energy giants is expected to intensify this year. According to Nobuo Tanaka, head of the IEA, the ultimate objective is Chinese and Indian membership of the group. The sooner this happens, the better. There would still be a long way to go in the climate battle, but it would certainly help by showing that major energy users are prepared to work together to clean up their mess.
Michael Richardson is an energy- and climate-change specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.