To review the argument so far, temperatures keep on increasing as long as we keep on emitting carbon dioxide. Harms from temperature increases will start to go up quickly once we get above a modest level. These two facts combine to mean that we eventually have to reduce emissions to zero. Given the level of past emissions and the current pace of emissions, we are on a schedule to hit plausible temperature targets around the middle or perhaps the end of this century. Under optimistic assumptions, this deadline might be extended into the early part of the next century. After that, emissions will need to be at or near zero. And finally, if emissions are to go to zero on this timescale, we are going to want to start now because of the size of the needed transition in our energy infrastructure.

All of these arguments apply globally and, therefore, to developing as well as developed countries. Zero emissions mean zero global emissions, so all countries, developed and developing countries alike, will have to stop emitting CO2 in the not-too-distant future.

The approach taken in the Berlin Mandate and the Kyoto Protocol would allow developing countries to increase emissions without limit, a conclusion clearly at odds with the necessary emissions reductions. As an alternative, maybe we could allow developing countries to increase emissions in the medium run, say for the next twenty-five years, before they too have to reduce their emissions, eventually to zero. A delay of this sort would allow developing countries to achieve a reasonable level of wealth and allow them the same sort of access to the atmosphere the developed countries had as they grew. This version, while better, is unrealistic as well.

The key reason is that fossil fuel infrastructure is durable. Installing new fossil fuel infrastructure effectively commits a country to the emissions from that infrastructure for its lifetime, which can easily be fifty or even one hundred years. Increasing the size of the fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere makes it more difficult to reach reasonable climate goals. If the increase in fossil infrastructure is large enough—and the planned increases in China and India seem to be—they may make it impossible to reach reasonable climate goals. It is, of course, possible to build a new coal-fired power plant and then shut it down after ten years even though it has forty or fifty years of remaining use, but it is extremely unlikely this would happen. How do leaders of a country explain that they are shutting down a plant that was just built at a considerable cost, works perfectly well, and is providing inexpensive and reliable energy to people who need it? They can’t. Once it is built, it will be used. New energy infrastructure instead needs to be clean.

To be sure, there is going to be some new fossil fuel infrastructure, particularly in developing nations. If we—people or nations concerned about climate change—tell India, China, or other fast-developing nations to scrap plans for new fossil fuel energy which they need for their economies to grow, we will simply be ignored. Feasibility concerns run both ways. The more such infrastructure is installed, however, the more difficult it will be to reduce emissions and to hold temperature increases to modest levels.

To get a sense of the need to control emissions in developing countries, we can focus on coal, which is the most important fuel for climate change policy because it is the dirtiest and the most abundant. We can make similar estimates for oil and gas.

Emissions from burning coal are the single large source of emissions, making up 43% of emissions from energy. It is the most polluting of the three fossil fuels, with about twice the emissions per unit of energy of gas. It is used primarily to generate electricity. It is massively abundant and generally easy to mine. There is enough coal at current rates of use to last for well over one hundred years. Reserves of coal potentially hold up to 3.5 trillion tons of carbon.13 If these reserves are all burned, the implied temperature increase (using a climate sensitivity of 3°C) is 7°C above than today’s temperatures. Today’s temperatures already represent almost a 1°C temperature increase so burning all of the known coal would produce an 8°C temperature increase. Even if only half of those reserves are recovered and burned, coal alone would produce a temperature increase of 4.5°C above preindustrial levels. If only a quarter of the total coal were burned and 75% of it were left in the ground, we would still greatly exceed the 2°C limit (prior temperature increases of just about 1°C plus 1.75°C more from new emissions from coal). Absent some sort of capture technology, climate stabilization requires that most of the world’s remaining coal remain in the ground.

Coal use is declining rapidly in the United States. The problem of new coal infrastructure coal comes largely from China and to a lesser extent India. The growth of Chinese emissions is simply staggering, and the projections even more so. The problem with understanding Chinese emissions is finding the right metaphor to get a sense of the scale.14 None suffice.

Chinese emissions have grown with their economy, more than tripling since 1990. More than 80% of China’s emissions come from coal. China’s emissions from coal alone are greater than the total emissions in the United States, the emissions from entire set of OECD countries in Europe, or those of any other nation in the world. China’s share of coal production is roughly four times Saudi Arabia’s share of oil, yet it now imports coal from Indonesia, Australia, and Vietnam because its domestic production cannot meet demand.

Dieter Helm, a climate change scholar at Oxford, estimated the proposed additions to China’s coal infrastructure. He estimates that under the current expansion plans for this decade China will be adding two additional large coal power plants per week.15 Each year China adds new capacity equal to the entire installed electricity capacity of the British electricity system. China’s energy is far more reliant in coal than Britain’s, so this additional capacity will produce more than double all of Britain’s emissions each year.

The World Resources Institute did an inventory of proposed coal-fired power plants (i.e., plants where construction has not yet begun but permits have been applied for).16 They identified 1,199 proposed plants with a total installed capacity of 1,400 gigawatts. Of these, 560 gigawatts are in China, or 40% of the global total.

Helm produced similar estimates for India. About 70% of India’s electricity is from coal. About one-quarter of India’s population is without regular access to electricity and in part to supply these people with power, and India plans a 30% increase in its use of coal by 2016. This amounts to about one new power plant each week.

Combined, China and India could be adding three new large coal-fired power plants each week for the coming decade. This makes up 77% of the proposed new coal power capacity for the entire world. The implications for climate change cannot be overstated. These power plants will have useful lives of fifty years or more and would essentially lock in emissions for that time period. It is not realistic to believe both that developing countries can install this sort of fossil fuel infrastructure over the coming decades and that we can keep global temperature increases to modest levels. A claim that developing nations have a right to install this sort of coal infrastructure is an admission that climate change should not be contained because both cannot happen. I don’t know where such a right would be said to come from but it is at odds with realistic climate goals.

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