Australia’s coal and China

2009-05-13

in Economics, Law, Politics, Science, The environment

Sasha Ilnyckyj on Andrea's porch

All regular readers of this site are familiar with Canada’s energy dilemma, as far as the oil sands, the United States, and climate change are concerned. The US has a huge appetite for oil, and is increasingly anxious about getting it from the Middle East. From a short-term perspective, this positions Canada’s unconventional oil very nicely. Of course, when you think long-term and realize the importance of climate stability, you become a lot more likely to think we would be better off leaving the stuff in the ground.

A similar dynamic seems to exist when it comes to coal, Australia, and China. In March 2009, China imported 1,716,802 tons of Australian coal. All told, it imported 211% more coal between January and March as in the previous year. Like Canada, Australia has extremely high per-capita emissions, a poor record on greenhouse gas mitigation, and a lot of export-oriented resource extraction industry. Also like Canada, it may well be the case that long-term climatic stability requires leaving most of that coal underground.

As such, it is disappointing that Australia has delayed plans to institute carbon pricing. When it comes to the negotiations at Copenhagen in December, dealing with the complexities of energy imports and exports will certainly be among the trickier issues that need to be sorted out in negotiations. While the climatic requirements are clear (sharply reduce global emissions), the economic and moral ones are trickier. After all, a fair bit of the coal China is burning is being used to make products for people in other states. Who, then, bears the moral responsibility for the emissions associated with extracting, shipping, and burning the coal? What sort of legal regime can be established to effectively incentivize decarbonization throughout such complex international production chains?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Edward May 13, 2009 at 7:58 am

The most interesting part of your post:
“Who, then, bears the moral responsibility for the emissions associated with extracting, shipping, and burning the coal?”

The notion of international responsibility isn’t good enough with so many short-term economic benefits to dragging one’s feet on emissions control. As you suggested, people need to come up with a framework for assigning responsibility in order to move forward. Good insight, Milan.

Milan May 13, 2009 at 1:28 pm

It’s not an original argument. It came up here before when considering Canadian emissions by province.

Alberta’s emissions are huge, but a good chunk of them are generated in the process of making fuels for other people.

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