Guest essay by Alberto Zaragoza Comendador
A common argument against the Paris agreement has been that the “pledges” to cut emissions are only that: promises, targets, hopes. There is no way to enforce them, or even to verify them in many cases.
Another common argument, highlighted in Trump’s speech but made since long before, is that even if the pledges were met the deal would be useless. According to this view, China, India et al are not even putting up with the charade of trying to reduce emissions. Their emission targets are what you’d expect if their economies and energy systems continued their historical experience; in other words, their “target” is equivalent to doing nothing. Most hilariously, Pakistan’s INDC simply stated its emissions would peak at some point.
(Proponents of the agreement have usually countered this argument by putting their hands on their ears and ceaselessly screaming “I HEAR NOTHING”)
In this article I take a quick look at historical emissions and economy data from China and India. As in other articles, data on emissions comes from the BP Energy Review and data on GDP growth comes from the World Bank; this Dropbox folder contains both the data and my calculations.
The TL; DR version is that, indeed, both countries submitted pledges that implied simply continuing the previous economic and energy trajectory; there is no extra decarbonization of their economies, compared with what they were already doing in 1990, 1995, etc. In the last section I delve on the implications of this fact for climate communications.
(That said, both China and India include a reforestation target. The impact of reforestation is definitely not captured by statistics on emissions, as these are derived from statistics on fossil fuel consumption. Growing forest cover has been a reality in developed countries for many decades. But I don’t know enough about the world’s forests to judge what would have been the “normal” reforestation in both countries, with no additional effort on their side, so I’ll leave it at that.)
India pledged to cut the CO2 intensity of GDP by 1.6-1.7% a year – exactly the rate since its economy’s liberalization
India’s independent, nationally determined contribution (INDC) said the country “intends to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35% by 2030 from 2005 level”. A cut of 33% in 25 years is equivalent to a reduction of 1.6% per year, while the 35% cut equals 1.7% a year. In practical terms this means that, if GDP stayed constant, each year emissions would have been 1.6 or 1.7% lower than the previous. Or that, if GDP had grown 1.6-1.7% a year, then emissions would have stayed constant. All the percentages in this article are compound, not average.
India had relatively slow economic growth until the early 1990s. Perhaps the most intriguing fact is that starting from 1993 or thereabouts not only did economic growth take off, but CO2 emissions started to grow consistently below the rate of GDP; as you can see, they previously grew at the same rate (years of intensity decline were offset by those with intensity increases).
India’s rate of decarbonization since the year 2000 is 1.65% a year; approximately the same rate has held since 1993 or 1994. Of course India’s GDP has grown much faster than that so emissions have increased.
China pledged to cut the CO2 intensity of GDP by 3.6-4.1% a year – a bit more slowly than the historical pace
By 2030, China wants to “lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60% to 65% from the 2005 level”. These goals are equivalent respectively to yearly declines of 3.6% and 4.1%.
China’s case is a bit more complicated because, while its GDP growth has been very stable, its emissions (and hence its decarbonization rate) have fluctuated wildly.
Over the full 1979-2016 period, China had a compound rate of decarbonization of 4.2% a year. However, as is common in formerly Communist economies the early years it had a very fast decarbonization, stemming from the shutdown or restructuring of energy-intensive industries (e.g. steel). Thus it may be unfair to compare its modern target with the decarbonization it was achieving back in 1980. In any case, the rate since 1990 is also 4% a year – on the high side of the country’s Paris target.
What about the other targets? Installing so many solar panels and so on
To read about “climate action” is to be inundated with a deluge of irrelevant factoids:
- India installed 20MW of solar the other day
- Oslo just banned cars from the city center
- Wind generation made up 50% of Germany’s power output at 3am yesterday (it makes you wonder what happens the rest of the year)
Why do I call these things irrelevant factoids? Because, to the extent that they reduce emissions, their effect is included in the emissions-intensity target. If installing wind turbines actually makes emissions per unit of GDP lower than they would otherwise have been, this effect will show up in the country’s decarbonization rate. It may sound “obvious” that wind turbines reduce emissions, but when you stop to think about it it’s not obvious at all. For months or years they may not be connected to the grid; if connected they may frequently be curtailed; they involve energy for manufacture, deployment and servicing; they may make thermal generation less efficient by requiring power plants to quickly ramp their output up and down; if they make electricity too expensive they may cause customers to replace it with diesel or gas. And, of course, they may also reduce economic growth.
(That’s another reason implementing fifty different climate policies at once is dumb: even if the policies work, in the sense that they increase the decarbonization rate, you will not know which are working).
China has pledged to deploy 800-1,000GW of renewable electricity generation capacity by 2030. A big number, but one that is the equivalent of pledging to deploy 100 Diet Cokes around your home without promising you will actually lose weight.
Climate scientists need to communicate better with the Chinese and Indians
Climate activists / communicators, including many scientists, have a brain-melting obsession with the US, and with Republicans in particular.
Just try to wrap your head around this instance of climate communications. First off, it’s mathematically absurd: even if the whole world had started a faster rate of decarbonization back in 1979 the difference in today’s temperatures would be less than 0.1ºC. If we spoke exclusively about the US, the difference between the emissions that were actually emitted in 1979-2016 and those that may have been emitted under faster decarbonization would be 0.01 or 0.02ºC. Not sure how that is going to affect wildfires.
But even more to the point, there is no evidence having a Republican or Democrat government makes any difference to CO2 emissions! This is true whether one looks at the US as a whole during different administrations, or by comparing different states with the US.
In short, it seems climate communicators have failed to convince the Chinese and Indian leaders of the urgency of the global warming. I, for one, believe the biggest challenge in climate communications is communicating with clueless climate scientists.
NOTE: Thanks to formatting issues in the original MS-Word document, the original graphs did not copy over on the first publication attempt. That has been remedied about 8 hours later. Note to contributors- please don’t use header and footer formatting of pages, it screws up HTML web conversion of the document.. – Anthony