Normative Narratives


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Green News: The Roles of “Rich” and “Poor” Countries in Combating Climate Change

Major Polluters: 

A rule proposed by the Enivironmental Protection Agency would cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 – the equivalent, according to the agency, of taking two-thirds of all cars and trucks in America off the road. Here are some things to know about the rule:

• The E.P.A. expects that under the regulation, 30 percent of electricity in the United States will still come from coal by 2030, down from about 40 percent today.

• The rule is not an executive order. Under the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. is required to regulate any substance defined as a pollutant, which the law defined as substances that endanger human life and health. A 2007 Supreme Court decision led to an E.P.A. determination that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, thus requiring that the agency regulate it or be in violation of the law.

• The rule will not, on its own, lower greenhouse gas pollution enough to prevent catastrophic effects of climate change. But, in combination with other regulations, it would allow the United States to meet its commitment to the United Nations to cut carbon pollution 17 percent by 2020 and press other major polluting countries, particularly China and India, to follow suit.

Energy production accounted for 26% of global GHG emissions in 2008, the largest source by sector. If the United States can cut its own emissions from energy production by shifting towards renewable energies and natural gas, and pressure other leading emitters to follow suit, this could significantly mitigate the environmental damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Countries such as China and India will point to comparatively high levels of U.S. per capita emissions to counter pressure from the U.S. to reduce their emissions.

Least Developing Countries (LDCs):

Access to energy is an essential component of modernization, poverty alleviation, and economic development. According to the International Energy Agency, 1.3 billion people (18% of the global population) live without access to electricity, 95% of which live in Sub Saharan Africa or developing Asia. In order to reconcile two fundamental components of sustainable human development–environmental sustainability and [extreme] poverty alleviation–the worlds least developed countries will need to satisfy their energy needs from low / zero emission sources.

There are a number of reasons to believe LDCs will rise to this challenge. As largely agrarian economies, LDCs face the negative impacts of climate change directly; food / water insecurity and communicable disease patterns are directly affected by changing climate patterns. Furthermore, because traditional energy infrastructure by definition does not exist in places without access to energy, the perceived “sunk costs” associated with renewable energy are largely non-existent.

However, LDCs face one large impediment to clean energy production–cost. As refined production techniques, market penetration, and creative financing drive down the price of renewable energy in the developed world, it is imperative that the technology gap be bridged to include LDCs in the renewable energy revolution. If the 18% of the global population without access to energy instead gain access to dirtier forms of energy, the actions of developed countries to combat climate change could be almost entirely negated.   

Despite this cost gap and shortfalls in pledged financing from developed countries, developing nations accounted for 43% of new renewable energy investment in 2013 ($93 billion out of a global total of $214 billion). However, only $9 billion of this investment came from Sub-Saharan Africa. Efforts to provide financing for renewable energy to those who currently lack access to any form of energy are at crux of sustainable human development, and must be scaled up immediately.

To this end, developed countries have pledged $100 billion per year in “climate aid” by 2020–if realized this would more than double investment in renewable energy in LDCs. Developing a global network of carbon taxation / cap and trade policies (or even a less ambitious patchwork of policies by the worlds largest emitters) can provide a steady revenue stream to ensure such aid is delivered.

Which countries are considered “rich” (and therefore are donor countries), and which countries are considered “poor” (and therefor aid recipients)? Once consensus is reached on this contentious issue, the question of how much aid each specific donor country should contribute remains (between historically high emitters / high per capita emitting “rich” countries, and current high emitting “emerging economies” such as China and India). These are the  challenges world leaders must work together to overcome while drafting the Post-2015 Climate Agreement / Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Neither “rich” nor “poor” countries can adequately address global environmental risks alone–concerted action is needed.  


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Green News: The Science, Technology, Economics And Geopolitics Of Climate Change Align

Sustainable development is arguably the most pressing challenge of the 21st century. The effort to reduce extreme poverty and modernize underdeveloped regions of the world is invariably linked to access to energy. The way the developing world fills its energy needs (traditional vs. “green” energy), alongside the energy consumption habits of the developed world, will have a great impact on the future of climate change (In the U.S., for example, the energy sector was responsible for 1/3 of GHG emissions in 2012).

A number of longstanding impediments still stand in the way of a meaningful global climate change policy. There is the issue of who will shoulder the majority of the costs of a shift towards sustainable energy sources, countries who have the longest history of emissions / highest per capita emissions rates (developed countries such as the U.S.), or those who currently emit the most GHGs (such as China and India, with their heavy reliance on coal based electricity)?

Unhealthy smog in China and India have put more pressure on politicians to address national climate change agenda’s, but to this point have done little in terms of bridging a global climate change agenda.

A related issue is that the countries that are most susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change are small island states, which have a negligible influence on global policy matters. Organizations such as the UN’s Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Alliance Of Small Island States (AOSIS) attempt to overcome this issue by banding together to promote their mutual interests, but still face an uphill battle in compared to more influential global actors. Until the worlds most powerful nations start feeling strong adverse effects of climate change (which some would argue they already have), the needs of these smaller nations are likely to go unaddressed.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to global policy change is that the worlds most powerful nations house the most powerful energy companies, who have a vested interest in the status quo and hold immense political sway due to their roles as political donors and job providers.

When it comes to climate change, the burden of proof is on the “accuser”, a reality climate change deniers have used to their advantage; these companies have virtually limitless resources to challenge claims that climate change is a man made phenomenon, or that it is linked to their activities. To quote Nick Naylor in the satirical comedy “Thank You For Smoking”; “These guys realized quick if they were gonna claim cigarettes were not addictive they better have proof. This is the man they rely on, Erhardt Von Grupten Mundt. They found him in Germany. I won’t go into the details. He’s been testing the link between nicotine and lung cancer for thirty years, and hasn’t found any conclusive results. The man’s a genius, he could disprove gravity.” In other words, if you pay a scientist / economist / expert enough money, they can disprove / refute any claim. 

While the costs of addressing climate change are quantifiable (difference in costs between competing energy sources, jobs / economics output lost, etc.), the benefits tend to be more abstract (ex: the costs of addressing climate change will be “greater in the future”, we can stave off natural disasters with untold economics costs, the effects on global food security, etc.). In a world of budget constraints and high unemployment, the quantifiable and immediate costs of addressing climate change tend to overpower the necessary reforms. Factoring in power asymmetries (those arguing for action are much “weaker” than those arguing against it), and the future of global climate policy becomes even bleaker.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of global climate change initiatives. For one thing, denying climate change has become a fringe position; the latest IPCC’s report found with 95% certainty that climate change is a man made phenomenon, and a slight majority (53%) of young Republic voters (the political party in the U.S. typically associated with inaction against climate change) describe climate change deniers as ‘ignorant,’ ‘out of touch’ or ‘crazy.’

In the long run, the Post-2015 Development Agenda is being developed alongside Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seem poised to be agreed upon in a Global Climate Treaty in 2015.

There are also immediate economic and geopolitical reasons to be optimistic about the future of renewable energy proliferation:

Economic:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which pools the efforts of scientists around the globe, has begun releasing draft chapters from its latest assessment, and, for the most part, the reading is as grim as you might expect. We are still on the road to catastrophe without major policy changes.

But there is one piece of the assessment that is surprisingly, if conditionally, upbeat: Its take on the economics of mitigation. Even as the report calls for drastic action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, it asserts that the economic impact of such drastic action would be surprisingly small. In fact, even under the most ambitious goals the assessment considers, the estimated reduction in economic growth would basically amount to a rounding error, around 0.06 percent per year.

What’s behind this economic optimism? To a large extent, it reflects a technological revolution many people don’t know about, the incredible recent decline in the cost of renewable energy, solar power in particular.

The climate change panel, in its usual deadpan prose, notes that “many RE [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions” since it released its last assessment, back in 2007. The Department of Energy is willing to display a bit more open enthusiasm; it titled a report on clean energy released last year “Revolution Now.” That sounds like hyperbole, but you realize that it isn’t when you learn that the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent just since 2008.

Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about “decarbonizing” electricity generation as a realistic goal — and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that’s a big part of the solution right there.

It’s even possible that decarbonizing will take place without special encouragement, but we can’t and shouldn’t count on that. The point, instead, is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now within fairly easy reach.

So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.

Geopolitics:

SO the latest news is that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has threatened to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev doesn’t pay its overdue bill, and, by the way, Ukraine’s pipelines are the transit route for 15 percent of gas consumption for Europe. If I’m actually rooting for Putin to go ahead and shut off the gas, does that make me a bad guy?

Because that is what I’m rooting for, and I’d be happy to subsidize Ukraine through the pain. Because such an oil shock, though disruptive in the short run, could have the same long-term impact as the 1973 Arab oil embargo — only more so. That 1973 embargo led to the first auto mileage standards in America and propelled the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries. A Putin embargo today would be even more valuable because it would happen at a time when the solar, wind, natural gas and energy efficiency industries are all poised to take off and scale. So Vladimir, do us all a favor, get crazy, shut off the oil and gas to Ukraine and, even better, to all of Europe.Embargo! You’ll have a great day, and the rest of the planet will have a great century.

“Clean energy is at an inflection point,” explains Hal Harvey, C.E.O. of Energy Innovation. “The price reductions in the last five years have been nothing less than spectacular: Solar cells, for example, have dropped in cost by more than 80 percent in the last five years. This trend is underway, if a bit less dramatically, for wind, batteries, solid state lighting, new window technologies, vehicle drive trains, grid management, and more. What this means is that clean energy is moving from boutique to mainstream, and that opens up a wealth of opportunities.”

We are closer to both irreversible dangers on climate and scale solutions on clean tech than people realize. Just a little leadership now by America — or a little scare by Putin — would make a big difference.

To be sure, all of the impediments discussed in this article still remain; power asymmetries, a sluggish global economy, different views about who should pay the costs of “greening” the planet. However, no impediment can withstand a well informed and empowered public; the science, technology, economics and geopolitics of climate change have aligned, the time for change is now (I hate making blanket statements like this, but for the reasons discussed in this blog, I truly believe it in this instance).

All that remains is the political will to stand up to vested interests and the public support to finance the shrinking cost gap between traditional and renewable energy sources (which could be further closed with some form of carbon taxation–again an issue of political will).

When the issue at hand is the fate of our planets ecosystems, with costs that are both unpredictable and rising, how can we not rise to this challenge?


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Green News: Walmart, Wages, Emissions, and Personal Accountability in a Democracy

Original Article:

Walmart is one of the biggest and fastest-growing polluters in the nation, despite the company’s 2005 pledge to become an environmental leader, according to a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

The retail giant emits 45 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), slightly more than Target, at 42 million metric tons, and significantly more than Costco, at 16 million metric tons, according to the report.

“The scale of Walmart’s energy efficiency and renewable power measures is not up to the scale of their business or their growth,” Stacy Mitchell, the author of the report, told Al Jazeera. “They been placing solar powers on the rooftops and getting some wind power and so on, but Walmart only derives 4 percent of its energy from renewable energy sources.”

“This is a business model that is built on these far-flung distributors and goods that are trucked all over the country [and shipped all over the world],” Mitchell said. “There are fundamental aspects of Walmart’s business model that are at odds with sustainability.”

Walmart spokesperson Christopher Schraeder told Al Jazeera that the company is “working hard every day to find solutions to the most pressing sustainability issues,” and that has “ambitious sustainability goals to improve our operations, increase fleet efficiency, source locally and sell more sustainable products.

Mitchell acknowledged that significant change in emissions will have to come through legislation, not just from companies becoming more ‘green.’

But with Congress more divided than ever, that’s not likely to happen soon, especially when companies use their financial resources and lobby members of Congress to block environmental protection measures.

Through the Walmart Stores Inc. PAC for Responsible Government, Walmart has given more than $22 million to politicians who are opposed to legislation that would regulate emissions and promote climate change.

In the 2008 elections, 80 percent of Walmart’s senate campaign contributions went to people who blocked the “cap-and-trade” bill, which would have reduced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emmissions across the U.S. economy. In the 2012 elections, 70 percent of donations went to people who supported the Keystone XL pipeline

Walmart has gotten a bad rap over a number of issues, and in the past I have been critical of Walmart’s business model as well. But I was still fair in my analysis back then; the two main issues Walmart receives flack for–employee compensation and emissions–need to be addressed by government policy:

 

1) Employee Compensation: This is as clear cut an example of policy failure there can be. Walmart, by paying its sales associates an average of $8.81 cents / hr, is not breaking any laws. This comes out to a yearly income of a little over $15,000, placing a large burden on the social safety net:

On the flip side of this, it costs the nation an estimated $1 billion a year in social safety net use. Essentially, the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s  low wages, which systematically produce full-time workers living below the poverty line.

It should raise a red flag that the same ideology opposed to safety net policies also tends to be against higher minimum wage legislation as well. It used to be that if you worked hard you could live a comfortable middle-class life and have enough to invest in a better future for your children. With the current minimum wage, the American Dream is no longer a reality for a large number of hard working but less-skilled Americans.

The plan to increase the federal minimum wage to $10/hr  (and thereafter tying it to a cost of living metric such as the CPI) beginning in 2014 (I believe the plan is to phase it in over three years) is a good start. This could also have the effect of pushing up non-minimum wage compensation as well, as employers looking for more skilled labor will have to compete with higher minimum wage employers. Such changes are all the more important in the context of rising inequality and falling median incomes (which are at their lowest level since 1995).

2) Emissions: 

As the report states, “significant change in emissions will have to come through legislation, not just from companies becoming more ‘green.’”. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a nice idea, but it only changes things at the margin. As with employee compensation, the real driver of change must come from carbon tax / cap-and-trade legislation. With proper legislation in place, CSR gives way to more enforceable corporate accountability.

Another important element of environmental sustainability should come from tax incentives for using local producers. This legislation would be less politically contentious than carbon taxation, but would have a huge impact on emissions. According to the ILSR report, Walmart’s carbon emissions disclosure does not include emissions from international shipping. However, this is a large component of Walmart’s competitive advantage, finding the lowest cost producers, which are always in developing countries due to lower labor costs. Since there is no taxation on emissions, as long as the price of production + transporting from the developing world is lower than the price of producing domestically, retailers such as Walmart have little incentive to choose the later.

By evening the playing field through tax incentives, the benefits would be twofold: 1) stimulating the U.S. economy through more local production and 2) lower emissions due to less transportation from production site to the store. These tax incentives could be paired with carbon tax / cap-and-trade revenue (to fulfill the revenue-neutrality legislative condition the G.O.P. lives by), further tilting the playing field towards lower emission  American production.

Walmart’s own CSR initiatives have led to an increase in American production, appropriate legislation can (literally and figuratively) bring these changes home.

I would like to take this opportunity to also highlight an example of the political economy definition of a “collective action problem”:

Through the Walmart Stores Inc. PAC for Responsible Government, Walmart has given more than $22 million to politicians who are opposed to legislation that would regulate emissions and promote climate change.

In the 2008 elections, 80 percent of Walmart’s senate campaign contributions went to people who blocked the “cap-and-trade” bill, which would have reduced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emmissions across the U.S. economy.

A collective action problems occurs when a large group of people would be better off with a change, but that change does not occur because the gains to each individual in that large group are small, while the losses imposed by the change on a small group are large. In this case, the American public would be better off with regulations on GHG emissions, but these improvements in environmental quality are hard to quantify and will occur only in the future. In contrast, the cost to the small group (Walmart) is large and immediate–having to pay for emissions. Therefore, it is rational for Walmart to use it’s resources ($22 million in this case) to lobby against these changes.

But there is strength in numbers and in public opinion, particularly in a democracy. While civil society may not be able to raise money to counter Walmart’s lobby, it need not do so to overcome the collective action problem. This comes down to an issue of social accountability. In a democracy, we can vote for lawmakers who will stand up to lobbies for the greater public good.

The fact that these politicians are rare-to-non-existent is partially due to legislation (lobbying money is allowed to influence lawmakers), but mainly it is due to a failure of social accountability. People are either too busy or too cynical to vote, with the aggregate outcome of a legislature that represents the interests of it donors rather than its constituents.

Democracy is powerful, voting is powerful. It is why we see wars fought in the name of democracy; people are willing to die for the rights we as a nation largely take for granted. Our ability to move forward as a nation whose laws represents the interest of the general public hinges on overcoming cynicism in the democratic process.

Finger-pointing and playing the blame game are not the answers. Education / information dissemination is an important element of overcoming collective action problems, and is largely why I do what I do here at NN. But ultimately the responsibility lies with each and every U.S. citizen. Belief in the power of the democratic process is the only way to return to the more egalitarian America of yesteryear.


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Green News: Competition in the Waste-to-Fuel / Energy Industry

(Everyone is sick of hearing about this government shutdown anyways right??)

The potential of the waste-to-energy industry is a recurring topic here at NN. To quote a NYT article on the subject, “THERE is an indisputable elegance to the idea of transforming garbage into fuel, of turning icky, smelly detritus into something valuable.” It seems that energy producers and waste management companies agree, as there has been a strong push in the past decades to turn energy based waste / fuel into commercially viable alternative power source. Most articles I have reviewed so far have referred to the gasification of garbage in specially designed power plants. A new concept proposes to capture the methane released from garbage already in landfills and turning it into energy/fuel:

Clean Energy Fuels will announce on Thursday that it has started selling a fuel made of methane from landfills and other waste sources at its more than 40 filling stations in California. The company, which is backed by T. Boone Pickens, is developing a nationwide network of natural gas pumps and plans to introduce the fuel elsewhere as well.

The company expects to sell 15 million gallons of the fuel in California this year, more than double the amount of similar fuels the Environmental Protection Agency projected would be produced nationwide.

To many in the industry, the pace of the fuel’s development has been something of a surprise.

“Though California and others have been investing in the development of this fuel, I don’t think people were expecting there to be a significant public supply or access this soon — maybe not even this decade,” said Tim Carmichael, who leads the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, a trade group.

A big factor in methane’s rise is the surge in natural gas production from shale drilling, which had already nudged the transportation industry to begin shifting to vehicles that can run on the cleaner-burning fuel, making it easier to meet emissions standards.

Another reason is powerful government incentives, especially in California, that have imposed strict regulations intended to help reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Under the program, suppliers that reduce emissions during the production, transportation and use of the fuel are awarded tradable credits.

These and similar federal incentives are allowing Clean Energy to sell the fuel, which is called Redeem, at the same price as its conventional natural gas fuel even though it is more expensive to produce.

But because of its source, the fuel counts as renewable and takes less energy to extract and process, making it more attractive to companies seeking to burnish their green credentials

The fuel’s environmental benefits also include capturing the methane before it is released into the atmosphere. When the methane-derived fuel is burned, it is far less harmful to the atmosphere than petroleum fuels. But the methane that escapes directly from decomposing waste is more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon.

For this reason, many large-scale farms, wastewater treatment companies and garbage companies have developed systems to capture escaping methane — known as biogas — for both transportation and electricity, and several start-up companies are working on systems of their own. There are projects in Europe as well, where biogas for transport is more common.

Beyond the bottom line, customers are increasingly interested in how clean the fuel is, said Andrew J. Littlefair, the chief executive of Clean Energy, adding that Redeem can burn 90 percent cleaner than diesel. “We’re seeing from these heavy-duty trucking fleets, and these shippers that hire these trucking fleets, they’re really interested in sustainability,” he said. “It’s gotten to be a very important part of the sale.”

John Simourian, chief executive of Lily Transportation, which uses a nationwide network of trucks to move a range of products, including construction materials and groceries, said that only a small portion of his fleet ran on natural gas but that the company was shifting over.

Not only is the fuel less expensive, but it gives the company a competitive advantage with customers on price and environmental concerns. “It’s just a win all around,” he said.

It is interesting to note all the different avenues being explored when it comes to turning waste into something valuable and environmentally friendly–and why not? According to Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for operational efficiency plans and programs “Waste is a problem, so if we could dispose of waste and create energy at the same time, that would be a silver bullet.” But you don’t need to be en expert to know that trash is a problem, especially in densely populated areas (such as major cities) which produce a lot of trash; it stinks, it takes up room, and it costs money to get rid of. It is safe to say that, with the current trash disposal system, we have a “surplus of trash”.

Now imagine a world where not only is trash not a liability, but there are actually companies biding for trash (both intra-industry and inter-industry; some want it for landfill methane extraction, others to gasify the garbage directly into energy)–a trash shortage! A stream of revenue could open up for large municipalities, instead of a large bill for waste management. It is true that eventually waste-to-trash will have to get off subsidies to become truly commercially viable. However, if as a society we are unwilling to reward waste-to-energy for it’s positive externalities (such as less emissions and less garbage around), we can still hold “dirty” energy producers accountable for their negative externalities via carbon tax / cap and trade. As waste-to-energy matures and becomes more efficient, and emissions prices stabilize due to a more complete global market, the industry should eventually be able to compete without subsidies. It would appear this world is not so unimaginable or far-off as one may think.

 

 


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Green News: Who Is Cutting and Who is Increasing GHG Emissions? The Answer May Suprise You

I gotta say, it is nice to not be covering the Syrian civil war in this post. Events in Syria have dominated the news lately, but it seems that at least for the immediate future diplomatic exercises have stalled the prospect of outside military intervention.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight an interesting trend I have noticed lately, involving different countries efforts (or lack thereof) to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The trend is interesting because it involves major players from both extremes (both high emitting nations and sustainability champions) moving forward with policies that would seem to contradict their historical stances on climate change. In recent news, the U.S. and China are moving to curb GHG emissions , while Australia and Canada are moving towards less sustainable energy portfolios.

(For some background, please see interactive maps on: GHG emissions by country per capita, CO2 emissions by country, renewable / fossil fuel energy production and consumption by country)

Australia and Canada have, in recent history, been global champions of sustainable development. Both countries were original ratifying members of the Kyoto Protocol, and have signed the protocol into law (although it appears Canada will not make it’s emissions targets). Australia became one of the first countries to sign a carbon tax into law, and while Canada does not have a federal carbon tax, several Providences have their own regulations in place. Canada and Australia, with their natural beauty, seemed like global poster-children for sustainable development. However, recent developments show these two countries shifting in the other direction.

Economic downturns have pitted environmentalists vs. industry in a zero-sum and short-sighted game, in which advocacy for sustainable development could be political suicide. Of course, in the long run, we need a more sustainable global energy portfolio; but these are problems for future generations who do not have the unemployment problems of today’s world, opponents of carbon taxes argue (I am not considering the climate change skeptic as a legitimate opposition anymore).

Canada has seen rising GHG emissions in recent years, with no future decline in sight–if anything, increased production of oil sands forecasts emissions trending upwards in Canada. Politics have turned against environmentalists in Canada for reasons discussed above; anybody who thinks about environmental sustainability implicitly does not care about jobs / the economy / problems facing Canadians today (sound familiar? this is a common argument for putting off action on reducing emissions around the world).

Australia recently had elections, which were won by conservatives based partially on a promise to abolish the unpopular carbon tax:

The Australian mining industry welcomed Saturday’s election of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his coalition’s pledge to abolish the carbon tax on fugitive greenhouse gas emissions from coal mines and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax on coal and iron ore mining profits.

The coalition of Liberal and National parties campaigned on a platform to repeal the taxes within 100 days of taking the reins of government.

“On the first sitting day of Parliament under a coalition government, I will introduce legislation to repeal the Carbon Tax,” Abbott said on the Liberal party’s website that included policy documentation stating the party would also rescind the MRRT.

For some Australians, the free-rider issue seems to make being environmentally conscious not worth fronting the bill–literally:

The carbon tax is one reason Sydney resident Geoff Hamment, who normally votes for Labor, is supporting the conservatives this time around. Hamment said he’s seen his household electricity bills go “through the roof” since the tax was introduced.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “I think us paying so much is just pointless when you have countries like China churning it out.”

The tax is extremely unpopular, despite the fact that most Australians, but not the wealthy, get government compensation for higher electricity prices.

For all the well-founded China bashing on the environmental front–China has overtaken the U.S. as the global leader in terms of absolute GHG emissions (although the U.S., per capita, still emits more than China; this is arguably a better measure of a countries energy efficiency)–the Chinese government appears to be trending towards more sustainable environmental policies:

BEIJING — The Chinese government announced an ambitious plan on Thursday to curb air pollution across the nation, including setting some limits on burning coal and taking high-polluting vehicles off the roads to ensure a drop in the concentration of particulate matter in cities.

The plan, released by the State Council, China’s cabinet, filled in a broad outline that the government had issued this year. It represents the most concrete response yet by the Communist Party and the government to growing criticism over allowing the country’s air, soil and water to degrade to abysmal levels because of corruption and unchecked economic growth.

The criticism has been especially pronounced in some of China’s largest cities, where anxious residents grapple with choking smog that can persist for days and even weeks. In January, the concentration of fine particulate matter in Beijing reached 40 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

For years China has had an array of strict environmental standards on paper, and its leaders talk constantly about the need to improve the environment. But enforcement has been lax, and the environment has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

“The plan successfully identifies the root cause of air pollution in China: China’s industrial structure,” said Ma Jun, a prominent environmental advocate. “Industrialization determines the structure of energy consumption. If China does not upgrade its coal-dependent industries, coal consumption can never be curbed.” he said. “The key to preventing air pollution is to curb coal burning — China burns half of all the coal consumed in the world.”

In the United States, the world’s number two GHG emitter, the issue of emissions has been divided largely down partisan lines. Liberals, led by President Obama, believe in taxing carbon and subsidizing renewable energies as part of an “all of the above” energy portfolio to meet future demand and cut emissions. Conservatives tend to argue against the need to curb GHG emissions, largely for the same reasons mentioned above with respect to Canada and Australia. However, it seems Obama intends to bypass partisan gridlock by passing executive orders, carried out through the EPA, to curb emissions from fossil fuel power plants:

The Environmental Protection Agency is due to unveil next week the first batch of regulations under President Barack Obama’s new climate action plan – a carbon emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants.

If standards are as strict as the industry expects, it could be the death knell for new coal plant construction. The recent bankruptcy of Longview, a highly efficient West Virginia coal plant, is an example of the pressures already facing the industry.

The EPA is due to issue an emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants by September 20. Proposed standards on existing plants will follow in 2014.

Obama asked the EPA to re-propose a rule it introduced last year using a section of the federal Clean Air Act that required all new power plants, including those that use coal, to meet a standard of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour – the rate of an average gas-fired plant.

Sources that have met with the administration in recent weeks said the agency has likely revised its earlier proposal to provide separate standards for natural gas and coal plants, and also raised the emissions limits for coal plants.

The new rules, like those initially proposed in 2012, are also likely to include a requirement for new coal plants to use a form of carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that captures carbon emissions and stores the carbon underground, that is years away from being available on a commercial scale.

Eugene Trisko, a lawyer who represents clients such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in energy and environmental matters, said CCS cannot be deployed if coal plants, such as Longview, are unable to run.

“If you really wanted to advance CCS, you really need to build new coal plants because those are the plants that one day or another would be the laboratories for CCS,” he said.

“Nobody is going to put CCS on plants that are 50 years old,” he added.

But some environmentalists argue that new EPA rules will only add another layer of financial risk around coal plant investment even in coal-reliant states like West Virginia.

Instead of investing in new coal plants, which will only become more costly, states should diversify their energy supply, said Cathy Kunkel, an energy research consultant and fellow at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The concept behind taxing carbon emissions and subsidizing renewable energies is pretty straightforward. Emissions represent a negative externality, pollution, that is a detriment to society as a whole. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade system creates a cost for this negative externality, discouraging its use and potentially helping to fund R & D in renewables (and therefore encouraging competing cleaner energy sources). Renewable energy has positive externalities (energy with lower levels GHG emissions), subsidies compensate producers for these externalities. Furthermore, renewable energy is still a relatively infant industry, which combined with its inherent positive externalities and increasing global energy demand, make it a prime candidate for government subsidy.

Do not get me wrong, we are still a long way away from the point where China and America can lecture Australia and Canada about their emissions (especially considering that China and America represent large export markets for Australian and Canadian fossil fuels respectively). However, it is interesting to note the role reversal, which I believe at it’s root is a failure of the international community to embrace the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Previous environmental champions, discouraged by the lack of international commitment to emissions reductions, have created an environment where politicians can win elections by tapping into that frustration. “We have tried, now we are concerned with our own problems.” people in these countries may argue. Australia has taken this stance on step further, with respect to ODA:

The outgoing Labor government said in May that Australia’s long-standing pledge to increase its foreign aid spending to 0.5 percent of gross national income by 2015-16 would be postponed by two years.

The coalition said in a statement last week that it shared Labor’s commitment to reach the 0.5 percent target “over time, but cannot commit to a date given the current state of the federal budget.”

“I have to say, there are higher immediate priorities” than reaching the 0.5 percent target, Abbott told reporters last week. “The best thing we can do for our country and ultimately the best thing we can do for people around the world is to strengthen our economy.”

The plans have been condemned by opponents and aid groups, who dubbed it short-sighted and contrary to the nation’s image of global cooperation, particularly in light of Australia’s recent appointments to presidency of the U.N. Security Council and the G-20 in 2014.

While this stance on international relations is obviously flawed and short-sighted, it is understandable how Canada and Australia got to this point. The U.S. and China, on the other hand, are recognizing they must lead any global initiative to reign in GHG emissions, before the costs rise further and irreparable damage is done.  China has an even more pressing problem, with the deadly smog it’s unchecked emissions has produced. This is the natural ebb and flow of accountability without coordinated global policy. Those who are mostly responsible for GHG emissions, fearing future accountability, want to work together to make those future costs as low and evenly shared as possible. Those who have forgone some economic growth for sustainable development in the past feel they have already done their part, and are beginning to forsake what they see as failed international commitments for domestic goals.
This is a failure of global policy coordination, and one the world cannot afford. The G20 would be a natural place to come up with a global environmental commitment, based on the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (which is really only fair) as the worlds largest emitters are represented there. Furthermore, as a relatively new group (established in 1999, the first meeting of the G20 Leaders took place in Washington, D.C., on November 14-15, 2008)the G20 doesn’t have the history of failed negotiations that sometimes doom other global climate change efforts. Australia taking over the U.N.S.C. and G20 presidency in 2014 looked liked a “win” for sustainable development a few years back; now I am not so sure that is the case.