The irony and hypocrisy of climate politics

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

27 September 2018


Coal and climate agreements do not mix well unless one or the other is under threat but when trade between nations is added into the mix then the waters can become even more murkier.

Despite shipping not having any duty to change its practices under the Paris Agreement, it is clear that while the most pragmatic owners continue to invest in conventional technologies, there are more than a few willing to experiment with new ideas. The number of vessels fuelled by LNG or some other alternative fuel is, it must be admitted, still relatively small but a definite trend is emerging for ships to be powered by something other than oil on a full-time basis.

And shipping has its own targets on reducing CO2 partly enshrined in regulations (EEDI) but also with more recent ambitions set out by the IMO that exceed many of the voluntary pledges made by entire nations under the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement has been very much in the news recently not least because in this last week of September it has been mentioned by many world leaders’ speeches during the UN General Assembly in New York. US president Donald Trump may not have referred to it directly but then the US is scheduled to exit the agreement in 2020 in any case.

Perhaps because of its genesis French President Macron even suggested that France would not enter into trade agreements with any nation that is not signed up to the Paris Agreement. While not going so far as his French counterpart, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in an article in the Financial Times criticised countries which have rising emissions although not exactly naming any specific nation.

That FT article prompted a letter from Kimiko Hirata, International Director of the Japanese environmental NGO Kiko Network which was published the following day. In the letter Hirata stated that “While the prime minister’s words are welcome, his actions tell a different story. Japan is the only G7 country still planning new coal-fired power stations, with more than 17 in the planning stage and 15 under construction. Internationally, Japan, together with China, is the largest public funder of coal-fired power plants, investing $14.5bn over the past five years alone. Shamefully, the Japanese government has become a funder of last resort as most other OECD countries have moved away from financing coal”.

The letter went on to say “All credible studies show if the world is to achieve the Paris Agreement targets, there is simply no room in the carbon budget to build any new coal plants, and wealthy countries such as Japan must phase out all coal-fired capacity by 2030”.

Japan is not the only nation investing in coal as highlighted in a Bloomberg article which appeared the same day as the original FT article. Quoting a report from analysts Wood Mackenzie, Bloomberg said that “For all its talk about cutting coal mining capacity, China actually plans to add more. The world’s biggest producer and user of the fuel may see net annual capacity additions of as much as 400 million tons by 2020. That’s about 10% of its current capacity and almost as much as Indonesia, the world’s biggest exporter, sells each year”.

China’s coal related activities has also been picked up by UK broadcaster BBC. In an online article yesterday (26 Sept) regarding research carried out by green campaigners CoalSwarm, the BBC says that satellite imagery suggests building work has restarted at hundreds of Chinese coal-fired power stations that were supposed to have been mothballed. The report says that at present China has 993 gigawatts of coal power capacity, but the approved new plants would increase this by 25%.

The research by CoalSwarm suggests that 259 gigawatts of new capacity are under development in China which equates approximately to the same capacity to produce electricity as the entire US coal-fired power stations. China of course has no immediate obligation under the Paris Agreement as its commitment requires its CO2 emissions to peak by 2030 after which it would consider what reductions might be possible.

Ironically, when President Trump began talking about withdrawing the US from Paris Agreement, critics of his actions suggested that it would allow China to take on the mantle of climate leaders. President Macron’s commitment to Paris was also questioned recently when his environment minister unexpectedly resigned.

The greatest irony around the latest developments around Paris Agreement is that demand for coal is clearly on the increase and almost certainly ships will still be hauling coal across the oceans for decades to come but assuming the technology advances being promised can be achieved, those ships might well be running on fuels that produce little or no CO2 emissions.