Our “Made in China” Climate Policy

The main beneficiary of our climate policy is not the climate.  It is China.

China couldn’t do better if it had written our climate policies.

We couldn’t do worse if China had written our climate policies.

Our carbon tax and a long list of other Canadian regulatory measures have just began to apply, so we’re not feeling any pain — yet.  But the pain is coming. The reduced global CO2 emissions are not.

The faster Canada chases net zero CO2 emissions the more it offshores its emissions, largely to China’s emerging, coal-fuelled global empire – along with the jobs, income and standard of living that go with it.  And India is close behind China. 

Is our climate policy sustainable? Not for long.

We shouldn’t blame China for following its own self-interest in raising hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, only ourselves for failure to recognize that that is what it is doing.

China’s Green Image and its Growing Use of Fossil Fuels

China’s equivalent of the US’ “Green New Deal” might be called the Black New Deal: more coal.

While the West is increasingly focused on CO2 emissions reductions, right down to “net-zero”, China is rapidly building more coal plants, both in its own country and in others, particularly in Asia and Africa. 

Media coverage of China’s massive construction of wind, solar and electric vehicles has been very positive.  However, China has continued its world-leading growth in burning fossil fuels to energize its rapidly growing economy.  In energy equivalent terms, China’s coal use grew almost twice as fast as its renewable energy use.  By 2019 its coal use was 12 times higher than its renewable use.

Patricia Adams, a Canadian economist and author, in her 2018 study of China’s energy developments, wrote:

“And so coal remains China’s mainstay. …. despite its talk about cutting coal-mining capacity, China, already the world’s largest producer and user of the fuel, plans to add more.

Abroad, it is the same story. By the end of 2016, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China is involved in 240 coal-fired power projects …. making it the most important global player in the development of coal-fired power projects.  …….

In comparison, Canada’s use of renewables, already high because of hydroelectricity, almost tripled in the 2009-2019 decade, while coal use declined by 38.6% between 2009 and December 2018, as per ceic.

The Paris Accord Goals Cannot be Met

In China’s most recent five-year climate plan submitted to the Paris Accord, China committed only to “peak” its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – at some unspecified level. 

As I wrote in an earlier post, a key feature of the Paris Accord was the commitment of developed countries to provide at least $100 billion annually in financial assistance to the developing countries for climate mitigation and adaptation.  The payments have not come anywhere close to this level, and the pandemic lockdown makes it unlikely they will do so in future.

India, which will soon surpass China in greenhouse gas emissions, will not agree to a net zero target, calling it “pie in the sky”: bbc news. India’s Minister for Energy said:

“The developed world has occupied almost 80% of the carbon space already, you have 800 million people [in developing countries] who don’t have access to electricity. You can’t say that they have to go to net zero, they have the right to develop, they want to build skyscrapers and have a higher standard of living, you can’t stop it.”

On March 30, 2021, Pakistan’s prime minister warned that developing countries would need about $400 billion a year in climate finance support to shift towards low carbon development pathways, yet developed countries had failed to deliver even the $100 billion a year promised in 2016 under the Paris Accord.  If the developed countries won’t pay $100 billion a year they certainly won’t pay $400 billion a year.

The parties to the Paris Accord were to submit updated five-year plans for emissions reductions by February 2021.  Only 75 of the 194 Parties to the Accord submitted these plans.  Only two of the 20 largest emitters – the UK and the EU – submitted on time.  There are currently no plans from China, India, the US, Canada, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, – a group that represents 70% of global emissions.

The UN issued a report estimating that, on the plans announced to date, the Parties to the Accord will come nowhere close to meeting the goals set in Paris in 2016.  This is not the first time the UN has said that.

Global Net Zero by 2050 is Sheer Fantasy

University of Manitoba Professor emeritus Vaclav Smil is a globally recognized energy transitions authority.  In his several books and articles he has shown that the number of years that it has historically taken for new sources of energy to surpass just 25% of energy use in a country is typically 50-70 years, and many more decades to become a dominant energy source. 

Such major energy transitions only happen when the new technology has clear advantages of cost, effectiveness and reliability over other existing technologies.  Yet today, Western governments profess to believe they can force such a transition within 30 years without any new, fully developed and tested breakthrough energy technology.

Professor Smil recently wrote, here:

“The most important fact is that during those decades of rising concerns about global warming the world has been running towards fossil carbon, not moving away from it. …. emissions have nearly tripled in Asia, largely because the Chinese combustion of fossil fuels has almost quadrupled. As a result, global emissions of CO2 increased by more than 60 per cent since 1992, setting yet another record in 2018. ……

Designing hypothetical roadmaps outlining complete elimination of fossil carbon from the global energy supply by 2050 is nothing but an exercise in wishful thinking that ignores fundamental physical realities.  …. The complete decarbonization of the global energy supply will be an extremely challenging undertaking of an unprecedented scale and complexity that will not be accomplished—even in the case of sustained, dedicated and extraordinarily costly commitment—in a matter of a few decades.”

It’s easy for politicians, in any country, to seek power with promises that cannot be kept until long after they’re gone. China says it will reach net zero by 2060, 4 decades from now, and a decade after the UN target of 2050. But by the 2050 target date, President Xi Jinping will be 96 years old, President Joe Biden will be 107, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be 78.  None of them will be leaders of their countries at that time.  Biden, and perhaps also Trudeau, will be gone before 2030. 

You Can’t Be a Leader Without Followers

The developing countries represent 2/3 of global CO2 emissions, with their emissions increasing. The developed countries represent about 1/3, and slowly decreasing. It is pure vanity for the US (creating 13% of global emissions) or Canada (1.6%) to claim to be leaders in “fighting” global climate change and saving the planet. There is no real global fight against climate change for either country to lead. You can’t be a global leader if most of the globe is heading in the opposite direction.

Winners and Losers in Bringing the Planet to Net Zero

As Professor Smil said, decarbonizing the global economy in the space of a few decades is not only wishful thinking, but even attempting it will be enormously costly.  For Canadians, it will make all forms of transportation, home heating, electricity and groceries much more costly.  As the West reduces its purchases of fossil fuels, particularly coal and natural gas, it makes these fuels cheaper for China to purchase, further enhancing China’s competitive position. 

In the global economic competition, the winners will be the ones who reduce their emissions last.  The emission reduction leaders will be the losers.

China is estimated to overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy by 2028, five years earlier than previously forecast, as the bbc reports.  (Meanwhile India is tipped to become the third largest economy by 2030.) There is nothing to prevent China from delaying its proposed 2030 peak date to whatever later date it wishes.  Although that may be unpopular in the West, what can the West do about It? 

Canada, the World’s Coldest Country, is Already a Leader in Low Emissions

China has a $2/ton carbon tax. Canada’s was just increased to $40/tonne on April 1, 2020 and is scheduled to increase to $170/tonne over 9 years. The price increase to $40/tonne alone translates to 8.8 cents per litre of gasoline: global news.

China also has far less strict environmental protection policies than the developed countries in the West.  These policies keep its manufacturing costs down.  

Like other Western countries, Canada has recently developed a costly new preoccupation with corporate environmental/social/governance (ESG) issues, to encourage fossil fuel disinvestment and green investing.  But all major Chinese industries are, directly or indirectly, either government owned or government controlled.  ESG doesn’t matter in China, another economic advantage.

Canada is often criticized for having a relatively high per capita level of greenhouse gas emissions.  But that level is below the US and several other countries.  I have also not seen any prescription for what the “correct” per capita level should be for Canada.  

Canada is the world’s coldest country, with an estimated average yearly temperature of -5.35 degrees C.  It is also the world’s second largest country, with a population density of 4 people per square kilometre.  But surprisingly, according to Canada Action, Canada is already a global leader in low CO2 emissions, thanks to its abundant hydro power:

“Not many Canadians know that our nation already gets 67 per cent of its electricity demand from renewables, or that ……. Canada got 16.3 per cent per cent of its total primary energy supply from renewables in 2018, higher than the OECD average of 10.5 per cent and the world average of 13.4 per cent.”

Given our “greenness”, how much more post-pandemic economic pain should we inflict upon ourselves when most others are doing so much less?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that Canada should build more coal plants. But Canada is already doing more than most other nations to reduce its CO2 emissions.  There comes a point when we have to recognize that we are doing enough, and we are at that point now.

The lack of any serious global commitment to the net zero target in the next three decades is not something Canada can change.  Our increasingly self-destructive climate policy, which accomplishes nothing for the planet, is something we can change. We will have to do that sooner or later, and sooner is better than later. 

4 replies »

  1. Nice take. The leaders lose, the laggards win. Collective action problem in a nutshell. We run grave risks from believing our own propaganda when no other country believes theirs. It reminds me of that scene where Justin Trudeau was mocking Donald Trump to an appreciative little band of foreign leaders at a reception. Boris Johnson glances over and notices the video camera recording them. Does he play the good chap and nudge Trudeau to shut him up? No, like the public school shit he is, he lets Trudeau rattle on. You can just hear the glee in his thoughts, Ho boy. This is going to be good when the head master hears this.

    Any thoughts as to why the U.K is apparently so keen on de-carbonizing? As a post-industrial country that doesn’t earn much from exporting fossil fuels, are they just capitalizing on their future as a digital money-launderer to the world to exploit whatever green virtue falls into their lap? Does it actually “work” for them to go painlessly carbon-zero? Were their CO2 emissions so high during their coal-fired industrial bi-century that they can set reductions from a very high baseline? This would just happen automatically as they out-source emissions to the foundries and factories of the developing world. Whereas ours were low during our agrarian past and are still low today, as you point out for electicity.

    I raise this because Canada is often thought of as a “British” country and we should therefore emulate them economically. We obviously aren’t, though. Hewing wood and drawing water is still what keeps us prosperous.


  2. Good Article Andrew thanks, it brings some balance to the hysteria. Also a good read is Bjorn Lomborg’s blog where his thrust is from the economy cost/benefit analysis of policy impact . Innovation will get us out of this not throwing taxpayer money at solutions that need to be subsidized with even more taxpayers’ money .


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