Duncan Clark over at the Guardian puts this question bluntly in a well-written piece asserting that the size of carbon reserves in a country go along with their hesitance regarding climate change action. To quote his main articulation:
We all know that Canada’s anti-green agenda is related to its tars sands, and that Saudi Arabia’s recalcitrance is related to its oil wells. Yet when we talk about the climate negotiations more broadly, we tend to forget fossil fuel reserves and instead try to interpret everything through the lens of current and future emissions.
But reserves are crucial. Any global deal worth its salt will – if successful – force the world to leave most of its oil, coal and gas in the ground, either forever or at least for decades until carbon capture is widely available. So it’s only common sense that the governments sitting on the biggest reserves may also be the ones most nervous about signing up for a deal ambitious enough to solve the problem.
The argument is simple enough: A Country’s reserve of fossil fuels will influence (not completely determine as Clark correctly points out) its position in international climate negotiations. This may be combined by ideology, for instance in the Venezuelan case he uses at the end, or may be quite direct in the case of Canada.
Although I have some problems with whether this holds in the complex world of climate negotiations (a position Clark notes); however, what I want to speculate in this post is at what point of depletion of reserves a state will switch positions? If the theory is true, then what hope for future breakthroughs in the negotiations are there? I think focusing on reserves actually offers some potential for significant changes in positions by country much sooner than if negotiation positions are driven by current carbon production, ideology, negotiating dynamics, or other factors.
Two conditions seem to be key in flipping state position and Australia provides a potentially useful example.
- Ceiling for Fossil Fuels. Australia has moved from an obstinate opponent to climate change action early to a hesitant party willing to engage in the Cartagena Dialogue. Although their size of reserves is significant, it is rapidly reaching peak position. Is the floor coming up at the country the reason for their switch? Maybe.
- Alternative reserves. If a country has a high future for alternative reserves, we might expect it to change its position. Australia, for instance, has significant solar capacity opportunity. This may provide incentive for countries to alter their position as their economic core changes.
Bearing both of these in mind, the source of the major break in the climate negotiations may come from some unexpected sources.
- China’s Carbon Conundrum. Although they have large carbon reserves, this is mostly in one source: Coal. They have huge reserves, but economic growth may mean that they hit their domestic peak in the next 20 years. Although some of this can be dealt with through exports from Australia, Canada, and others; the logic in Duncan Clark’s argument is that it is national reserves that matter and not purchasable reserves. When this peak comes up upon China, they may be the key break in the climate laggards block that produces results elsewhere.
- Sunny Places. There are significant renewable resources available in Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Canada. If these get more of a foothold in those countries and capacity gets improved, position switches may be possible and likely. While Saudi Arabia’s large carbon reserves and Canada’s new investment in tar sands makes this unlikely for a while, increasing renewable capacity might be seen as not simply dealing with climate change problems, but dealing with climate change negotiation problems too.
If reserves matter, either partially or dominate the position of countries, this provides some explanation for the stalled process over the past decade. However, it may also present a key aspect that can change some positions over the next decade and allow progress to be made.