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- Despite the UN climate summit, fossil fuel firms are still in for the long term | Fiona Harvey
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China overtook the US as the world’s biggest carbon emitter in 2007 and became world’s largest energy consumer in 2010
China now burns nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined.
The country’s appetite for the carbon-intensive fuel rose by 9% in 2011, to 3.8bn tonnes, meaning it now accounts for 47% of worldwide coal consumption.
The growth, revealed by US government figures on Tuesday, was driven by China’s booming economy, which has grown at an average rate of around 10% over the past decade. China overtook the US as the world’s biggest carbon emitter in 2007, and became the world’s biggest consumer of energy in 2010.
Research out last November suggested that 1,000 new coal-fired power plants are planned worldwide, with 363 in China and 455 in India. If all the plants were built, it would put the world on “a really dangerous trajectory” for climate change, experts at the World Resources Institute said.
China’s air pollution problem, highlighted this month by record-breaking bad air quality in Beijing, is caused by a mix of power plants, factories, cars, construction and farmers burning coal for heat.
Coal, gas and oil are used to make all sorts of everyday objects, but how we will make those things when fossil fuels run out?
The penny had to drop eventually – fossil fuels like coal might be more valuable if they were used to make medicines, chemicals and fertilisers rather than wasted by being burned.
While we know that fossil fuels are used to make all sorts of everyday objects such as plastics, carbon fibre, soap, aspirins, solvents and dyes, it has never occurred to most of us how we will make these things when the coal, gas and oil run out.
To help concentrate minds on the potential waste of resources, the World Futures Council based in Munich, has attempted for the first time to put an economic price on burning fossil fuels rather than saving them for more “useful” applications.
The WFC’s Matthias Kroll claims the loss of this important natural resource runs into trillions of dollars a year but does not appear in economic calculations of the costs of generating energy. It should particularly be factored into the cost comparisons between renewables and fossil fuels otherwise a false impression is created, he argues.
Kroll’s report and his calculations in the rarified field of economics may seem difficult to grasp but he backs them up with figures about the volume of fossil fuels used for industry in a sophisticated economy – in this case, Germany.
Surprisingly, 13.5% of the crude oil in the country is not burned for energy but used to manufacture other products like chemicals. For natural gas it is 4.1% and hard coal 0.7%. Even that small percentage for coal is still 10,318 tonnes.
Although Kroll concedes that Germany, because it is an advanced country, uses a higher proportion of fossil fuels in manufacturing than most, he argues that developing countries will need these resources later for their own industries.
His point is that it is possible to protect the use of increasingly valuable fossil raw materials for the future by substituting these materials with renewables and we should take that into account when working out the full cost of energy production.
On his calculations when we burn fossil fuels rather than save them for more useful purposes we are incurring a loss worldwide of between $8.8bn and $9.3bn dollars a day.
It may be possible to argue with some of the report’s findings on costs. For example, sulphur is often extracted from oil before refining and would simply be a waste if not used for fertilisers. On the other hand many of the uses of fossil fuels are the primary reason for taking them out of the ground and as a raw material they already are more valuable than as diesel in the back of a lorry.
There will also be those who say fossil fuel reserves, particularly of coal, are so vast we can use them for whatever purpose we like. It is the same sort of argument that says we should not worry about the effect of climate change on future generations.
• Paul Brown is a journalist at The Climate News Network
Greenpeace analysis shows 14 planned giant fossil fuel projects will increase global emissions by 20%
China and Australia top a global list of planned oil, gas and coal projects that will act as “carbon bombs” and push the planet towards catastrophic climate change, a Greenpeace report warned on Tuesday.
The Point of No Return study, by consultancy firm Ecofys for Greenpeace, calculated that the 14 giant fossil fuel projects would produce 6.3 gigatonnes of CO2 a year in 2020 – as much as the entire United States emits annually.
The largest contributors will be China’s five north-western provinces, which aim to increase coal production by 620m tonnes by 2015, generating an additional 1.4bn tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.
Australia’s burgeoning coal export industry, already the largest in the world, is in second place due to its potential growth to 408m tonnes of shipped resource a year by 2025, resulting in an annual 760m tonnes of CO2.
Meanwhile, controversial exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the Arctic could release 520m tonnes of CO2 a year, with further major emissions set to flow from other new fossil fuel frontiers, such as tar sands oil in Canada and shale gas in the US.
The Greenpeace report states that these 14 “carbon bomb” projects will increase global emissions by 20% and eat up nearly one-third of the carbon budget that the International Energy Agency says can’t be breached if warming is to be kept below 2C, considered the threshold for dangerous climate change.
The analysis suggests that there is a 75% chance of keeping emissions below the 2C target if all 14 projects – which are at varying stages of planning and approval – are cancelled, with emissions peaking in 2015 before falling by 5% annually.
“If these projects aren’t wound back, we’re looking at an extra 300bn tonnes of CO2 by 2050, which will make it very difficult to meet the 2C target,” said Georgina Woods, lead campaigner for Greenpeace Australia.
“The fossil fuel industry is diversifying and finding new ways to extract resources, often in toxic and dangerous ways.”
“This is a last-ditch push by these companies to entrench themselves in a changing energy market. Countries which have agreed [at UN climate talks] that the 2C tipping point can’t be passed should not allow these projects to go ahead.”
The report comes at a time when China and Australia, the countries set to oversee the two largest CO2 escalations, have been forced to contemplate the potential downsides of major fossil fuel exploitation. Beijing has experienced unprecedented air pollution blamed on industrial output and Australia is suffering a record-breaking heatwave which has been linked to climate change.
Last year, projects such as those on Greenpeace’s list were labelled “sub-prime” assets posing a systemic risk to economic stability by a group of high-profile investors, politicians and scientists.
The group warned Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King that efforts to keep the world below 2C of warming will demolish the value of carbon-heavy assets listed in the City of London, creating a “carbon bubble” that will impact institutional investors and pension funds.