Editorial Notes

Genuine commitment needed to address climate change: The China Post

Electric Power Development (J-Power)'s coal-fired thermal plant is seen in Yokohama, south of Tokyo on Aug 7, 2007.
Electric Power Development (J-Power)'s coal-fired thermal plant is seen in Yokohama, south of Tokyo on Aug 7, 2007. PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial on Oct 6, 2015, The China Post questions the climate change commitments being made by countries.

An increasing number of countries are committed to addressing climate change and want everybody to know about it. 

As of Oct 1, around 195 countries had made public their letters of intent before the Paris Conference on Climate Change, which starts on Nov 30. 

These Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) summarise each country's intent to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and thus help limit global warming to 2 deg C by the end of the century. 

Although Taiwan is not a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it has also expressed its commitment to reducing the country's carbon emissions. 

In mid-June, Taiwan's Legislative Yuan passed the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emission Reduction and Management Act, providing a legal basis for response measures to climate change while demonstrating the country's determination to support UNFCCC by achieving its goals.

The Environmental Protection Administration announced recently its plan to draft a national action plan for climate change and implementation measures for cutting GHG to 20 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and 50 per cent by 2050. 

Although these figures average the goals set by other developing counties, we believe, based on the research of the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) — an independent scientific analysis produced by four research organizations tracking climate action — that these commitments remain insufficient and could still herald a temperature increase of 2.7 deg C in the future.

In their INDCs, all countries stressed their "efforts" as they try to address climate change. 

Behind the numbers and the seemingly technical jargon, however, most countries keep on using and abusing subtleties difficult to understand for the average individual, suggesting they engage as best they can. 

So let's go beyond the loud promises to cut GHG emissions by half in four decades from now and explain the tricks implemented by the smartest of them (and often the most polluting). 

To begin with, setting the reference date to measure carbon emissions for their own benefit is the most common way to defy the statistics (and common sense) and calculating GHG emission cuts based on the years a country issued a lot of them. 

For instance, the US aims to cut emissions by 26 to 28 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005. Yet, figures show the country was the second-largest polluter that year with peak emissions of 5.8 billion tons of equivalent CO2. 

Comparatively, the US "only" emitted 5.1 billion tons in 2012, proving that the reference year dictates the efforts to be made in the future. 

Comparatively, the Japanese government refers to 2013 to set its reduction targets, purposely knowing that it was the year when GHG emissions reached a peak because of the Fukushima Accident that forced the authorities to let coal-fired power stations operate at full. 

From that perspective, it's always easy to say emissions are going down. 

In their INDC, countries must also list the areas in which they mean to achieve their goals. If they mention energy, for instance, they must be specific in their efforts undertaken in the renewable sector. 

If they mention land management and forests, like Russia, which plans to cut emissions by 30 to 35 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990, they should provide further details on their forest management policies, beyond "protection, maintenance and afforestation." 

For sure, relying on land management to cut emissions can be an interesting strategy if your country accounts for 25 per cent of global forest resources like Russia, but without specifics, some might believe that you are lacking enthusiasm in your efforts to curb emissions or simply delaying the energy transition. 

The same blurriness applies to other countries and organizations, like the European Union, which promises a 40-per cent reduction by 2030 compared to the levels of 1990, without providing much detail on each country's efforts.

So, how will they manage to cut their emissions before the agreed deadline? The response is simple: They all plan to buy pollution rights through a "carbon market." 

This mechanism allows states to continue emitting GHGs themselves by buying carbon credits from other less polluting nations or participating in projects to reduce emissions abroad. 

Instead of curbing emissions and encouraging the energy transition toward more renewables, however, the system will further encourage polluters to buy credits from less developed economies, which will eventually run contrary to the goals set by the Paris Conference on Climate Change in the first place and a genuine commitment to address climate change. 

The China Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of xx newspapers seeking to promote coverage of Asian affairs.