TOBIAS ELLWOOD: Why Australia’s inferno is linked to climate change led by China’s domination bid

Britain is starting the year with a little more optimism and a resolve to raise its political game. 

Yet this new decade has the potential to be the most dangerous and volatile since the Cold War. 

In addition to a resurgent Russia and Iran, we have to contend with extremism, creeping authoritarianism and cyber-conflict.

Power struggle: China's fight for world domination is impacting on climate change, Ellwood warns

Power struggle: China’s fight for world domination is impacting on climate change, Ellwood warns

Apocalyptic scenes: The devastating bushfires have claimed the lives of around 23 people and scores of wildlife

Apocalyptic scenes: The devastating bushfires have claimed the lives of around 23 people and scores of wildlife

Despite all this, I predict the 2020s will be increasingly dominated by two seemingly unrelated challenges.

The first comes in the form of the apocalyptic scenes in Australia, where devastating bushfires have killed at least 23 people and wreaked untold havoc.

The second is the rise of an authoritarian China, which will soon overtake the United States as the world’s dominant power.

On the face of it, the plight of the people of Australia and China’s struggle for global supremacy may seem worlds apart.

But there is one dire problem that links them both: climate change.

It’s a recurring theme which came up time and again during the recent General Election campaign, with voters frequently asking: Are we doing enough, fast enough?

Climate change has rightly moved from the periphery to centre stage of the nation’s consciousness. Sure enough, the penny has dropped – mankind is testing the very limits of our only home, this fragile planet.

By international standards, Britain’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint are commendable. Indeed, we have made the most progress of all G20 nations.

We are the first major economy to have legislated a net zero-emission target by 2050, coal power is being phased out and about a third of our electricity is now generated from renewable sources.

Rarely a week goes by without a high-profile campaign endorsing the issue. Last week the Duke of Cambridge said the Earth was facing a ‘tipping point’ as he launched the Earthshot prize. 

Said to be ‘the most prestigious environment prize in history’, cash will be awarded to individuals and organisations who come up with innovative solutions to environmental problems.

'Tipping point': The Duke of Cambridge warned the Earth was at risk and launched the Earthshot prize as 'the most prestigious environment prize in history'

‘Tipping point’: The Duke of Cambridge warned the Earth was at risk and launched the Earthshot prize as ‘the most prestigious environment prize in history’

On a more mundane level, most of us are doing our bit to alter our lifestyles. 

We recycle, we take our canvas bags to the supermarket, our reusable cups to work and even trade in our diesel cars for hybrids.

However, we are learning the hard way that unless there is an urgent net global reduction in CO2 emissions, our personal and national efforts will be meaningless. 

Like the proverbial tanker, altering the current trajectory of planetary damage requires a global wake-up call, which it seems only those too young to vote can fully comprehend.

We will soon reach the point of no return where the damage done to our sensitive eco-system will lead to rising sea levels, extreme weather changes, failed crop production, mass migration and increased conflict over sparser resources – bringing untold misery to millions around the globe.

There will always be those who say that such claims are overblown, that the talk of the planet heating up a couple of degrees will not lead to life-altering changes on a biblical scale.

There are others who refuse to comprehend the seriousness of the situation.

Yet the evidence is overwhelming. We know the last decade has been the second hottest on record, we see the tragedy of our ice caps melting, our deserts growing and our sea-life dying – yet little seems to change. 

Those in power claim they are listening.

Policies are changing and targets are being set. Indeed, the 2016 Paris Climate Conference saw some 170 nations commit to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5C to 2C above pre-industrial levels.

With the US, China and India – the three biggest climate polluters – adding their backing to the agreement, the future looked hopeful.

Less than four years on, however, things are not going so well.

As soon as he was elected, President Trump withdrew America’s support from the agreement.

Pulling out: US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement designed to protect the environment

Pulling out: US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement designed to protect the environment

 Last month saw COP25 – the Conference of Parties international forum specifically created to tackle climate change – take place in Madrid. 

Yet it brought further frustration when attendees failed to reach an agreement on a new accord.

Now we’re in a situation where, rather than limit a global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by 2030, our planet is expected to reach a temperature of more than 3C above those levels.

Of all the activities that damage our planet – and there are many – the burning of coal stands head and shoulders above the rest, accounting for a third of all emissions. Removal of that alone would be sufficient to meet the critical 1.5C target.

And so to China – the biggest polluter in the world, emitting about the same level of greenhouse gases as the USA and Europe combined.

Home to a quarter of the world’s population, China’s recent economic growth and efforts to raise living standards have understandably been energy-intensive as it built the equivalent of Europe’s housing stock in just 15 years.

Most of this development has been powered by coal, an abundant natural resource in China.

With coal producing around twice the amount of CO2 as other fuels, it was specifically highlighted in the Paris Accord with a call for global use to be reduced by a third. 

Polluting nations: Both China and India are among the top polluters in the world - Chinese leader Xi Jinping and  Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi

Polluting nations: Both China and India are among the top polluters in the world – Chinese leader Xi Jinping and  Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi

But as the rest of the world is closing down coal-fired generators, China is building more. More than two-thirds of its energy requirements are now met by coal.

And to compound matters, it is actively involved in constructing hundreds more across South East Asia – or put another way, half of all global coal power capacity under development. 

For an aspiring superpower, this is simply irresponsible – especially for a country that today is so technologically advanced and perfectly capable of producing cleaner energy.

More than 30 countries plan to phase out coal-fired power to help reduce carbon emissions. 

Britain now has just five such power stations, with one in South Wales scheduled to close later this year and two more to be converted to gas within the next two years.

But China’s casual disregard for emission reductions is testament to its attitude towards wider global standards and the rule of law.

Speaking out: Former Defence Secretary Tobias Ellwood talks about the challenges facing this decade

Speaking out: Former Defence Secretary Tobias Ellwood talks about the challenges facing this decade

From territorial claims in the South China Sea, its state-controlled, highly censored cyber world and its ‘one belt, one road’ financial deals that fuel debt-trap diplomacy, China is on a mission to rapidly advance and widen its influence, rewriting international rules and norms as it grows. 

Climate change will not stand in the way.

Left unchecked, China’s growing economic, military and technological might have the potential to allow an alternative competing sphere of influence to begin to operate on a global scale, far beyond the accepted norms of currently recognised international standards.

This is the landscape over which the next decade will play out. And it will be like no other in determining global geo-political stability and security.

Yet there is hope. 

We can avoid this dangerous bi-polar world developing and the threat of climate change if the West is more united. 

We must better understand China and have a more grown-up dialogue to agree enforceable international standards. 

This daunting challenge is not helped by the recent rise in populism, protectionism, isolationism, and a reticence to reinforce our international institutions.

It’s clear that we must wake up to the threat of climate change.

All of us have a responsibility to do our bit but without China pulling its weight, our individual efforts will be in vain.

So, what role can Britain, with our new-found optimism, play? Well, in November we will host the next international climate change forum, COP26, in Glasgow.

We are duty-bound to use the international diplomacy for which we are so well known to push for greater consensus on the biggest issue of the decade.

The planet is at stake. The bar could not be set higher. And the world will be watching. 

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