As the six-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit has got underway in Sydney, Australia, observers wonder whether the leaders congregating there would have the political will to tackle the all too crucial issue of climate change.
The fate of human civilisation will probably hinge on the fossil-fuel decisions of just six nations, and five of them are members of APEC, notes Jeremy Leggett,author of Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis.
AdvertisementIf we are to avoid tipping the planet over a widely accepted danger threshold of 450 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide, we can only afford to burn fossil fuels in a quantity measured in low hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon. Industry estimates suggest that remaining oil deposits alone exceed this figure, if we include unconventional sources such as Canada's tar sands.
As for coal, the energy industry suggests several thousand billion tonnes remain to be burned. Even if we believe fossil-fuel proponents tend to exaggerate estimates of the size of deposits, it is clear that most of the remaining coal has to stay in the ground if we are to avoid climate catastrophe. Three-quarters of coal reserves are in five nations: the US, Russia, China, India and Australia.
Add Canada, because of the scale of the oil deposits in the Athabasca tar sands, and there you have it: the fate of human civilisation will probably hinge on the resource decisions of just six nations. Those who place their hopes in bolt-on adjustments to the fossil-fuel status quo, notably carbon capture and storage technology, face the problem that mass production of the necessary technology is more than a decade off.
What can then one we expect of Howard, Bush and their fellow coal leaders this week? Howard has said he will instigate a carbon-trading scheme if re-elected, but will not be drawn on the all-important issue of caps. Bush opposes an energy bill passed recently in the House of Representatives that would place an obligation on electric utilities to use more renewables and less coal.
He is endeavouring to run his own international negotiations in competition with the UN's long-running Kyoto process. On this kind of running, it would be surprising if the summit offered any hope of the world kicking the coal habit.
Would different leaders in the Big Six make any difference? In Australia, Labor is ahead in the polls, but strong on defence of coal interests. In America, the Democratic challenger Barack Obama, from the coal state of Ohio, has co-sponsored a bill to boost technology that makes gasoline from coal via a process that would be ruinous for the climate.
Meanwhile, those not in the coal big league and best placed to lead the way to a different energy future are not doing so. In the UK, coal use is rising, renewables investment is derisory, and even investment in carbon capture and storage would pave but a short stretch of motorway.
That is but a depressing scenario, and here is one reaction - "the oil and coal age wont end because it runs out anymore than the Stone Age came to an end because stones ran out.
"Have you no faith in the future? mankind will not give up, it will invent things and developments no-one can now foresee will take place. Leave it to the next generations they will be the best equipped to save the world."
Can we afford to?