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All Quiet on the Climate Front

“Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit,” said Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, but President Donald J. Trump did exactly that. He sent a team of American diplomats and energy executives to the annual world climate summit, being held this year in Bonn, Germany, to extol the wonders of “clean” coal.

Bloomberg, now a UN special envoy for climate change, got it right. The audience at the US presentation heckled and mocked the presenters. Where people who were concerned about global warming once worried about whether the US government would dare to defy the fossil fuel lobby at home, the denialists now control the government – and it turns out not to matter all that much.

There are several reasons for that. One is that global coal use has gone into steep decline as the cost of renewable energy has dropped. It’s just not competitive any more, and China and India have cancelled plans for hundreds of new coal-fired power plants this year. Even in the United States, the share of electricity coming from coal fell from 51 percent in 2008 to only 31 percent last year – and US coal companies are going bankrupt.

A second reason is that Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement has had zero impact internationally. The fear that other countries would also default on their commitments proved to be unfounded, and the United States is the literally the only country on the planet that does not subscribe to the treaty.

Indeed, Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate negotiator, actually thanked Trump for his attempt to wreck the Paris deal. “It provoked an unparalleled wave of support for the treaty,” she said. “He shored up the world’s resolve on climate action, and for that we can all be grateful.”

Finally, Trump has been outflanked by a new alliance announced in Bonn on Monday that links the fifteen US states committed to strong climate action with the Canadian and Mexican governments in a continent-wide group that concentrates on phasing out coal power and boosting clean power and transport. Much of the US contribution to emissions cuts that Trump reneged on will be covered by these state-level American initiatives.

There are other causes for alarm, of course. There always are. After three years when global carbon dioxide emissions stayed steady, albeit at a very high level, they have started rising again. And there is an unexplained rise in methane emissions in the tropics, not caused by burning fossil fuels, that leads some scientists to suspect that one of the dreaded feedbacks is kicking in.

Feedbacks are the spectre at the feast. You can get everything else right, your emissions are going down nicely, and you are on course to stop the warming just before the average global temperature reaches two degrees C higher – and then suddenly, the whole global system goes into overdrive. The warming that human beings have already caused has triggered some other, natural source of warming that we cannot shut off.

The consensus among scientists is that the risk of triggering feedbacks rises steeply in the vicinity of plus 2 degrees C average global temperature, which is why the world’s governments have all promised never to exceed that target. But there could be some unknown trigger in the system that would set off runaway warming at a significantly lower average global temperature: the whole process, as they say, is “non-linear”.

So we are still living dangerously, and it is still uncertain whether we can ratchet down emissions targets fast enough to stop the temperature rise in time. But there are big changes in the offing that will make it easier to cut emissions: meat substitutes and lab-grown meat, electric vehicles, and rapidly falling prices for renewables like solar and wind.

There is also now a unity of purpose that was previously absent from the climate talks: the long struggle between the rich and the poor countries over who is to blame for the problem and who pays for the damage is largely over. And although President Xi did not come in person, China is definitely taking the lead.

Nobody in Bonn is celebrating the US government’s defection from the fight against climate change, but their panic is long past. The Bonn meeting is concentrating on writing the rules for measuring how countries are complying with the promises they have made on emissions cuts. They also need to figure out how to organise the five-yearly reviews at which the countries are supposed to adopt progressively higher targets for cuts.

When the conference closes on Friday, there will be no exciting new announcements of breakthroughs, but we don’t need that. The real breakthrough came in Paris in 2015, and the objective now is to keep the show on the road. So far, so good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Indeed…grateful”; and “The consensus…non-linear”)

Why China Won’t Budge on North Korea

Over the next few days, Donald Trump will be visiting the leaders of Japan, South Korea and China, and the same topic will dominate all three conversations: North Korea. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in will be looking for reassurance that the United States will protect them from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but in Beijing Trump will be the supplicant.

The American president will be asking President Xi Jinping to do something, ANYTHING, to make North Korea to stop testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles Trump has painted himself into a corner with his tongue, but even he knows (or at least has been told many times by his military advisers) that there is no military solution to this problem that does not involve a major war, and probably a local nuclear war.

Trump promised that North Korea would never be able to strike the United States with nuclear weapons, and the reality is that it will get there quite soon (if it is not already there). The United States has no leverage over North Korea except the threat of war, so he needs China to get him off the hook.

China has lots of leverage: 90 percent of North Korea’s imports come in through China, and most of its foreign exchange comes from selling things to China. Beijing could leave the North Korean population freezing and starving in the dark if it chose – but it won’t do that.

Xi Jinping may throw Donald Trump a couple of smallish fish – a ban on the sale of blow-dryers and chain-saws to North Korea, perhaps – but he won’t do anything that actually threatens the survival of the North Korean regime. Yet he knows that nothing less will sway Kim Jong-un, because the North Korean leader sees his nukes and ICBMs as essential to the survival of the regime.

Xi Jinping does not love Kim, and he definitely doesn’t like what he has been doing with the nuclear and missile tests. Kim has even purged the senior people in the North Korean hierarchy who were closest to China, and Beijing still puts up with his behaviour. Why?

Because the survival of Communist rule in North Korea is seen in Beijing as vital – not vital to China as a whole, but to the continuation of Communist rule in China. That may sound weird, but look at it from the point of view of China’s current rulers.

Almost all the world’s ruling Communist parties have been overthrown in in the past quarter-century. What’s left, apart from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is just a few odds and ends: North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos. And the CCP’s highest priority is not “making China great again” or building a blue-water navy or whatever; it is protecting the power of the Party.

The Chinese leadership cares about those things too, but everything is always seen through the prism of “Will it strengthen the Party’s rule?” Seen through that prism, the collapse of the North Korean Communist regime is a potentially mortal threat to the CCP as well.

The reasons that are usually give for Beijing’s determination to keep the North Korean regime afloat just don’t make sense. The Chinese Communists don’t really worry about a flood of North Korean refugees across the border into Manchuria if the North Korean regime falls. They’d mostly go home again after things settled down, and become happy citizens of a reunited Korea.

Beijing doesn’t stay awake at night worrying that a reunited Korea would bring American troops right up to the Chinese border either. It’s actually more likely that US troops would eventually leave a reunified Korea. After all, nobody in Korea worries about a Chinese attack, so why would the US troops stay?

What truly frightens the men in charge in China is seeing another Communist regime go down. They were terrified by the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1989-91, and they blame it on the weakness and willingness to compromise of the Soviet Communist Party.

For all their power and all their achievements, they see themselves as standing with their backs to a cliff. One step backward, one show of weakness, and they could be over the edge and in free-fall. Letting Kim Jong-un fall, however much they dislike him, might unleash the whirlwind at home.

That is probably not true, but it has been the view of the dominant group in the Chinese Communist Party ever since the Soviet Union fell. They will not push Kim too hard no matter what the cost. And the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have just told Congress that there is no way the US can eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons without a full-scale land invasion.

Conclusion? No matter what the various players say now, in the end North Korea will get to keep a modest nuclear deterrent force, but it will have to agree to keep it small enough that it could not possibly launch a successful first strike. Not that it could even remotely afford to build a force big enough to do that anyway.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The reasons…stay”)

The Car Revolution

France and the United Kingdom recently announced that they will ban the sales of gasoline and diesel-engined cars from 2040. The lower house of the Dutch parliament has passed a law banning such sales from 2025. India says it will institute a similar ban by 2030.

China, the world’s largest producer of cars – 28 million vehicles last year, more than the United States, Japan and Germany combined – is also planning to declare a ban soon, but is still working on the cut-off date. And in November the European Commission is going to debate a minimum annual quota of electric vehicles (EVs) for all European car producers.

So if you were looking for a safe place for a long-term investment, would you choose the oil industry?

Just over half of the 98 million barrels of oil produced in the world each day goes directly to making gasoline, used almost exclusively in motor vehicles. Another 15 percent goes to make “distillate fuel oil”, of which at least half is diesel fuel. So around 58 percent of total world oil production is being used in vehicles now. There may be almost none in 35 years’ time.

That is certainly the intention of many governments. Britain, for example, is planning to allow only zero-emission vehicles on the road (apart form a few specially-licensed vintage cars) by 2050, only ten years after the ban on selling new cars with internal combustion engines comes into affect.

So the production of gasoline- or diesel-engined cars will already have collapsed by the late 2030s. In practice, if these deadlines are observed, the cars on sale will be almost entirely EVs by the mid-2030s. And what’s left of the oil industry will have a very different shape.

Countries that export most of their oil, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, will find their incomes crashing for two reasons: sheer lack of demand, and very low prices ($40 per barrel or less) due to the huge glut of productive capacity. There may also be follow-on political consequences.

Countries with some oil production of their own, like the United States and China, may simply stop importing oil entirely. (The United States will remain in the last ditch federally so long as Donald Trump is president – he’s even trying to revive the coal industry – but eight states have already signed an agreement to have 3.5 million zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2025.)

All this is good news for the environment, and also for the health of people who live in large cities. (No wonder China is the leading EV producer in the world, with 40 percent of global production. Pollution is already making most of its cities almost uninhabitable.) But the revolution doesn’t end here: most, and eventually all of these EVs will be self-driving vehicles.

Driverless vehicles will end up being ownerless vehicles. They will become public utilities, summoned when they are required for the specific trip you have in mind at the moment. Urban car clubs and peer-to-peer rentals are one precurser of this phenomenon, Uber and Lyft in their different ways are another.

Privately owned cars are parked an average of 95 percent of the time. This figure varies little from one city or country to another, and illustrates why private car ownership will become a dispensable luxury. The difficulty in the past was gaining immediate access to a car for as long as you needed it at a reasonable cost, but the combination of the smart phone and the self-driving vehicle will solve that problem.

That, rather than a cheaper taxi service, is the real goal of Uber’s business model, but once reliable self-driving cars are widely available Uber will find itself deluged with competition. Private ownership will decline steeply, and the total number of cars on the road worldwide will eventually crash to perhaps one-quarter of the current number. After all, there are hardly ever more than a quarter of privately-owned cars on the road at the same time.

Buses and conventional taxis will virtually disappear, taking millions of driving jobs with them. (There are a million taxi, Uber and bus drivers in the United States alone.) Long-distance truckers and van drivers (another 3.5 million in the US) will also find work increasingly scarce: Daimler, Volvo, Uber and Baidu are already road-testing the first self-driving 18-wheelers.

Oh, and one more thing. About a quarter of the average central city in North America (less in Europe and Asia) is devoted to surface parking lots and multi-storey garages. They are part of the 95-percent-parked problem. The car doesn’t just take you downtown; it has to stay there the whole time you do, so it must find somewhere to park.

Once people realise that most of this land is now available for redevelopment, it will get a lot easier and cheaper to live downtown: less commuting, more community. Roll on the car revolution!
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Countries…2025″)

Cui Bono?

Donald Trump has spent a lot of time in the courts, so he must be familiar with the legal concept of “cui bono” – “who benefits?” When a crime is committed, the likeliest culprit is the person who benefited from the deed. But he certainly did not apply that principle when deciding to attack a Syrian government airbase with 59 cruise missiles early Friday morning.

The attack against Shayrat airbase, the first US military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in six years of civil war, was allegedly a retaliation for a poison gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun three days before that President Trump blamed on the Syrian regime. But who stood to benefit from the chemical attack in the first place?

There was absolutely no direct military advantage to be derived from killing 80 civilians with poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun. The town, located in al-Qaeda-controlled territory in Idlib province, is not near any front line and is of no military significance. The one useful thing that the gas attack might produce, with an impulsive new president in the White House, was an American attack on the Syrian regime.

Who would benefit from that? Well, the rebels obviously would. They have been on the ropes since the Assad regime reconquered Aleppo in December, and if the warming relationship between Washington and Moscow resulted in an imposed peace settlement in Syria they would lose everything. (Only a few days ago US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that removing Assad from power was no longer Washington’s priority.)

Al-Qaeda – and probably several other rebel groups – have access to chemical weapons. The country was awash with them before the war, because the ability to make a mass chemical-weapons attack on Israel was Syria’s only deterrent against an Israeli nuclear attack. (Assad, and his father before him, understood clearly that Syria would never be allowed to have nuclear weapons of its own.)

Chemical weapons were stored in military facilities all over Syria, and at one point half the country was under rebel control. So of course the rebels have had some for years, and are known to have used them on occasion in their own internecine wars. Would al-Qaeda have hesitated to use them on innocent civilians order to trigger an American attack on the Syrian regime? Of course not.

The results have already been spectacular. The developing Russian-American alliance in Syria is broken, the prospect of an imposed peace that sidelines the rebels – indeed, of any peace at all – has retreated below the horizon, and Rex Tillerson has just declared that “steps are underway” to form an international coalition to force Bashar al-Assad from power. Not a bad return on a small investment.

But we should also consider the possibility that Bashar al-Assad actually did order the attack. Why would it do that? For exactly the same reason: to trigger an American attack on the Syrian regime. From a policy perspective, that could make perfectly good sense.

The American attack didn’t really hurt much, after all, and it has already smashed a developing Russian-American relationship in Syria that could have ended up imposing unwelcome conditions on Assad. Indeed, Moscow and Washington might ultimately have decided that ejecting Assad (though not the entire regime) from power was an essential part of the peace settlement.

Assad doesn’t want foreigners deciding his fate, and he doesn’t want a “premature” peace settlement either. He wants the war to go on long enough for him to reconquer and reunite the whole country (with Russian help, of course). So use a little poison gas, and Donald Trump will obligingly over-react. That should end the threat of US-Russian collaboration in Syria.

Either of these possibilities – a false-flag attack by al-Qaeda or a deliberate provocation by the regime itself — is quite plausible. What is not remotely believable is the notion that the stupid and evil Syrian regime just decided that a random poison gas attack on an unimportant town would be a bit of fun.

Villains in DC Comics do bad things simply because they are evil. The players in the Syrian civil war do bad things because they are part of serious (though often evil) strategies. Whoever committed the atrocity at Khan Sheikhoun wanted the United States to attack the Syrian regime, and Donald Trump fell for it.

But if Trump was taken in by the Syrians, he certainly exploited his attack to send a very serious message to China and North Korea. He is a player too, after all, and it can hardly be an accident that he timed the attack for the day of his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping.

Wheels within wheels. It is going to be a wild ride.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Al-Qaeda…own”)