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The AP6 – breakthrough or marriage of convenience?

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

Who, or what, is the AP6? The abbreviation stands for the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. It could equally stand for the Air Polluting Six, and the half dozen members who make up this loose consortium generate half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Those members are the United States, Australia, South Korea, Japan, India and China, and at their first meeting, in Sydney in January, the issue of reducing those emissions was at the top of the agenda.

As with any association of independent nations, there are the rich guys and the poor guys, and the latter usually benefit from the largesse of the former. This is exactly what happened when former Soviet bloc countries joined the European Union, for example.

In the case of the AP6, it is China and India which stand to profit from cash injections from the other four countries, those injections specifically targeted at developing clean technologies to be adopted by the booming Indian and Chinese industrial sector. If the initiative is genuine, rather than cosmetic, then it cannot come too soon, as India and China, between them, generate 20% of our greenhouse gases. That, of course, means that the other AP6 members generate more, but the economies of the USA, Australia, Japan and South Korea are not growing at the staggering rates of India and China, and nor do those four countries collectively account for more than one third of the world’s population.

If we look at China, the figures are mind-boggling, and the question of car ownership and production is a perfect indicator. In the mid-1990s the number of people per private car was between 500 and 1000, and there were approximately 10 million cars in all. Last year there were 1.3 million cars in Beijing alone, up 140 per cent in just 8 years. The production of Chinese cars has risen more than 1000% since the 1960s, most of that rise coming in the last decade, a production rate only matched (in percentage terms) by Japan, South Korea, Yugoslavia and Spain.

Now let us compare Australia, where the person to private car ratio has long been fewer than 5. Last year alone, 925,000 new cars were sold in this country – that is almost exactly one for every 20 of us, man, woman and child. If China was to achieve the same car ownership ratio as Australia (and North America and Europe, where it is also under 5 people per vehicle) that would see the number of cars in China rocket to 240 million or more. It requires no imagination at all to envisage the air pollution this would create.

Moreover, there is evidence that such targets can be achieved in a surprisingly short space of time. After all, the Japanese economic miracle only dates from the 1950s and 1960s, and South Korea’s is even younger. China and India are merely the newcomers to this Asian boom, but their very size makes each of them a special case. And the signs are there for all to see. Taking China as the example again, 20 years ago Shanghai boasted just one skyscraper. Today it has over 300. In the central city of Chongqing, new shops have opened at a rate of 9000 per year over the past seven years, all fuelled by the emerging consumer society and its attendant phenomenon of disposable capital.

To deny the economic success of China and India would be a gesture of supreme hypocrisy, for they cannot be blamed for aspiring to the achievements of the developed nations. Nor can their huge populations be criticised for aspiring to the American (or Australian) dream. But that dream comes at a price. Add half a billion cars to the environment over the next 20 years, plus the factory emissions produced in the making of those cars, fridges, washing machines, plasma TVs and everything else under our middle-aged sun – and the consumption of fossil fuels will – to employ a popular expression – go ballistic. China’s present oil consumption, for instance, is about six billion barrels a day, its oil production half that. By 2025 the consumption rate will double, and the production rate will still be around today’s level.

Apart from the environmental impact this will have, it will also create an economic maelstrom, as oil prices will be driven sky high, quite possibly out of reach of ordinary citizens. This would mean that the average Chinese or Indian might literally become a victim of his or her own country’s ‘success’, and the spin-off effect on western nations will be equally deleterious.

It is therefore small wonder that the members of AP6 want to make both India and China more energy efficient, and among the options being discussed are clean coal, carbon and methane capture systems, liquid gas, and – where applicable – alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.

However, it is important to remember that the governments of the AP6 countries have economic imperatives on the agenda, and, furthermore, that they view their initiative as an alternative to the proposals adopted by the Kyoto protocol. After all, it is the USA, Australia, and, for that matter, the beneficiary nations, China and India, that have refused to ratify Kyoto.

Therefore it is disturbing that no specific quotas, goals or dates have been set by the AP6, and vested interest is the simplest explanation. Why would Australia want to set a limit and a cut-off date on its coal exports to China when we presently earn some $400 million from this one resource market? And would the USA benefit from reducing Chinese imports when the USA’s largest superstore chain, Wal-Mart, is, by itself, China’s 6th largest export partner?

Furthermore, the encouragement of clean, green technology in these emerging economic juggernauts is not being matched by the demonstration of it in our own backyard. We are not setting the correct examples; we are not teaching the right lessons. If, for instance, the AP6 want to encourage carbon sequestration in India and China, all this proves is that we have the know-how to do it. It does not demonstrate that we are doing it.

For this reason I am dubious about whether the AP6 alliance, only formed in July last year, is truly an expression of a “will to change”, or merely a vague declaration of intent, a marriage of convenience.

If so, common sense would tell us that the AP6 approach should be shelved, and replaced by a genuine biting of the bullet, in the form of ratifying the Kyoto protocol, and implementing its goals and targets. The official explanation for non-ratification (and we should remember that Australia argued for – and received – a special dispensation allowing us to increase carbon emissions) is that the greenhouse gas cuts imposed by Kyoto were, and are, unachievable and too costly in the specified timeframe.

Maybe it is timely to remind non-signatory countries, including our own, the US, India and China, that the cost of not ratifying Kyoto will be immeasurably higher. As global temperatures rise and weather patterns become ever more unpredictable, that bill may arrive in our collective letterbox much sooner than our politicians would like to think.

First of all, signatories to Kyoto, many of them with equally developed economies and equally threatened coastlines, might just decide that they are fed up with a handful of countries riding roughshod over the rest, and refuse to trade with those countries. That is a simple, purely economic scenario.

Of far greater portent is the overall picture presented by increased global warming, and if we, the USA and others, are so blinkered that we cannot see what climate change can, and eventually will do, we only have to remember back as far as one storm called Katrina. The clean up bill after that hurricane was, is, and for a while still will be, larger than the Gross National Product of most member states of the United Nations. Therefore saying that reducing emissions to the Kyoto levels is too costly is pure nonsense, because it will only become more costly as time progresses.

If we look at the two beneficiaries of the AP6 alliance, we can easily see what non-ratification of Kyoto is producing. All of India’s major rivers, the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, and their tributaries, are already classified as severely polluted. The same is true of the Yangtze and Hwang-Ho in China. If the sea level in the Ganges Delta rose by just one metre (and rises approaching this are already creating environmental refugees in some low-lying Pacific islands), the resultant loss of life would dwarf that of the December 2004 Asian tsunami. If the Ganges Delta rose by two metres, large parts of Calcutta would be affected, and if the rise went to three metres, both Calcutta and the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, would disappear. We would then be talking about human losses not in the tens or hundreds of thousands, but in the tens of millions, and the economic backlash could quite conceivably use up all the resources generated by India’s economic boom, and return the country to square one.

This is not scare mongering; the sea level rises just mentioned can happen, given that all coastlines are subject to tidal fluctuations.

Now, if the three hottest years of the past century have all occurred within the past 10 years; if the polar caps are melting at unprecedented rates, and if – with the exception of an ever-decreasing coven of detractors – scientists are agreed that greenhouse gas emissions, a product of human activity, is the cause, then those political and corporate ostriches who determine our futures should remove their heads from the sand, and start turning words and token gestures into meaningful, and urgent, action.

Instant ratification of Kyoto would send a signal to all nations, developed and developing, that we are at last confronting the reality of the situation. If loose associations such as AP6 are to be a viable alternative, they must set out specific goals, and guidelines – including deadlines – for the achievement of those goals. Understanding what has to be done, and how, was yesterday’s job. Understanding when is the task of today. For, in environmental terms, the old Biblical saying: “as ye sow, so shall ye reap” has never been more true than it is right now.

 

David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental and conservation issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains, NSW.

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