Guest essay by Iain Aitken
The December 2015 COP21 Climate Conference in Paris, in which 40,000 delegates from 196 countries flew in (and imagine the carbon dioxide emissions all that travel created) and finally agreed an ‘historic’ document that legally committed nobody to any carbon dioxide emission reductions, simply repeated the failure of the Lima conference of the previous year and Copenhagen before that. These conferences are wasteful and pointless charades, being cynically designed to give the public the impression that the politicians are actually serious about ‘saving the planet’. The Paris deal, in particular, allowed nations to set their own voluntary carbon dioxide targets and policies without any legally binding caps or international oversight.
To achieve the goal agreed in Paris of a maximum 20C increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels has been estimated to have a global cost of $17 trillion by 2040 (about 800 times more than was spent on all the Apollo missions to the moon) – and it would require carbon dioxide reductions about 100 times greater than those pledged in Paris. Pledges are cheap (if not worthless). For example, take China, the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. China’s pledge was to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 60-65% of 2005 levels by 2030. Yet its stated plan is to build 363 coal-fired power stations between now and 2030 which has been estimated to double its carbon dioxide emissions. It has also announced that it will build no further wind turbines owing to their excessive infrastructure costs and their destabilising effect on the grid. How can we reconcile the pledge with the plans? India, the world’s third-equal largest emitter, plans to treble its emissions. So long as they are not required to make any legally binding (and overseen) decarbonisation commitments the pledges do the developing countries no harm – and may even do much ‘good’ (in the sense of serving self-interests), if the developed nations do indeed decarbonise (so making them less globally competitive owing to their higher energy costs) and hand over hundreds of billions of dollars to help the developing nations move more rapidly to renewable energy. Whether the politicians of the developing nations believe a word of the IPCC reports is irrelevant – it appears to make very good political and business sense to pretend you do. When Donald Trump described climate change as a ‘Chinese hoax’ this is presumably what he had in mind.
To gain an empirical insight into the likely behavior of nations that ratify the Paris Climate Accord we need look no further than the very similar (but actually ‘legally binding’) ‘Kyoto Protocol’ emissions-reduction treaty from COP3 of 1997. The Kyoto Protocol was also hailed as ‘historic’. Some countries (like Canada) that ratified it subsequently withdrew as the economic pain became apparent. Countries adopting costly decarbonisation policies under Kyoto’s first commitment period seriously damaged their economies and yet actually increased emissions at a rate faster than the U.S.A. (who did not ratify Kyoto). By 2012 17 of the 36 countries left who were bound by the Protocol had failed to meet their targets (the big emitters generally having the worst record). Had everyone actually achieved their targets the end result by 2050 would anyway have only been a 0.050C reduction in temperature. As Chairman Inhofe of the US Environmental Works Programme said in 2006, ‘The Kyoto Protocol is a lot of economic pain for no climate gain.’ All Kyoto appeared to achieve was constrained economic growth in the developed nations that ratified it while allowing unconstrained growth in developing nations like China and India. Similarly even if all 196 nations actually delivered on their Paris pledges by 2030 it would once again result in only about a 0.050C temperature reduction (0.170C if the pledges were sustained to the end of the century).
Basically, at the very best the Paris Climate Accord is just symbolic – but a very, very expensive symbol. It is not even legally binding and, just like the Kyoto Protocol, effectively allows China and India to continue with ‘business as usual’ emissions up to 2030; indeed the agreement explicitly states (in Article 4(7)) that ‘economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties’ – which gives carte blanche to developing nations like China and India to increase their carbon dioxide emissions as much as they like. On this basis it is reasonable to suppose that the Paris Climate Accord is unlikely to be any more successful than the Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Accord was a great success from a public relations point of view – but an unmitigated failure from a climate change point of view. As Walter Russell Mead presciently saw it (since he was writing before the Paris conference), ‘It is, in its way, a perfect solution. It is a legally binding agreement to disagree about carbon. Each country is legally bound to do exactly what it wants… To produce a failure but to call it a success is one of the oldest political tricks in the book.’
So long as much cheaper fossil fuel energy is available in the developing nations they are likely to avail themselves of it in order to improve standards of living and help alleviate as fast as possible the plight of millions of starving and poverty-stricken citizens. Indeed some developing nations are reducing the proportion of renewable energy in their power mix in order to respond to the demand for cheaper energy. There are few better and faster ways to alleviate poverty and disease than cheap energy – but global decarbonisation may defer that for decades. Decarbonisation is not a victimless ‘crime’. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan (who was talking about government), it may be the case that decarbonisation is not the solution to our problem; decarbonisation is the problem. Since nearly 1.3 billion of the world’s poor do not even have electricity (many dying prematurely as a result of smoke inhalation through burning dung in their huts), what right do we, in the developed nations, have to deny them the chance to acquire it?
The politicians of the developed nations who have signed up to the Accord are falling over themselves to be seen to take the lead in ‘saving the world’, irrespective of the fact that it almost certainly does not need saving and, even if it did, the reductions in carbon dioxide emissions being committed to are, in practice, unachievable (because even if they were theoretically achievable the electorates of the democracies would not tolerate the economic pain and environmental damage that this would entail). We can be very confident that there will be no material climate gain from the Paris Climate Accord, certainly in the near future (because that would require China and India to actually start to honour their pledges in the short term, which appears to be a fantasy) – but very material economic pain for the developed nations who seriously pursue decarbonisation policies.
The alarmists’ response to all of the above is of course that if the developed nations do not pursue decarbonisation policies then it legitimises the developing nations doing the same – so the developed nations must take the ‘moral lead’. But that only makes any sense if the developing nations actually follow that lead (instead of profiting from the reduced global competitiveness of the ‘moral lead’ nations) – and it is very clear that they have no intention whatsoever of following that lead.