monographic · Emotion and Reason in Politics– The Skeptical Razor
Paris Climate Treaty
There is much to criticize in President Trump’s announcement cancelling U.S. involvement in the planet’s only real climate policy, the Paris Treaty.
Trump failed to acknowledge that global warming is real. He was wrong to claim China and India are the “world’s leading polluters”. (China and the U.S. are the largest carbon emitters, and the U.S. is biggest on a per capita basis). Suggesting that the U.S. will “re-negotiate” the deal was just silly. The White House is left without a response to climate change, which is deeply problematic.
But this critique is easy. It is more difficult to be honest about the Paris Treaty’s own intrinsic problems.
Environmentalists who were once honest about the Treaty’s shortcomings have convinced themselves of its supposed virtues based solely on Trump’s opposition. As highlighted by writers from the Breakthrough Institute, back in 2015 noted environmentalist Bill McKibben found the Treaty did just enough “to keep both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry from complaining too much”. Now, McKibben fears Trump’s withdrawal “undercuts our civilization’s chances of surviving global warming”.
In Paris in December 2015, world leaders made fairly feeble carbon-cutting promises, and then declared grandiosely that their commitments would keep temperature rises “well below 2°C” and even suggested that rises could be kept to 1.5°C.
This extravagant claim is a misstatement on the same scale as anything ever tweeted by Trump.
Based on current CO₂ emissions, achieving the 1.5°C target requires that the entire planet entirely abandons using fossil fuels in 4 years. That is never going to happen.
But even keeping rises to 2°C is unrealistic. The UNFCCC – the United Nations organization in charge of the Paris meeting – estimates that if every country makes every single promised Treaty carbon cut between 2016 and 2030 to the fullest extent possible and there is no carbon leakage, carbon dioxide emissions will be cut by 56 gigatons (Gt) by 2030. Yet, it is widely accepted that to keep temperature rises below 2°C, we must reduce CO₂ emissions by 6,000 Gt. Even in an implausibly optimistic, best-case scenario, the Treaty leaves 99 percent of the problem in place.
According to the UN’s own main climate model, the difference between a world with all the promised cuts and one without them is 0.05°C. Even if all nations including the U.S. extended their carbon cut promises throughout the century, temperatures would be reduced by less than 0.2°C.
Many Treaty advocates claim that the agreement will achieve a lot more. This rests on sophistry, and specifically on a far-fetched assertion that much stronger carbon cuts happen after 2030.
The Treaty commits nations to specific and reasonably verifiable (though non-binding) carbon-cutting promises up until the year 2030. After that, nothing is concrete, and for a very understandable reason: can you imagine a carbon-cutting promise made by President Bill Clinton in 1993 being fulfilled by President Trump? Can you imagine a Democrat in 2035 (or perhaps even a Republican) feeling honor-bound by an environmental policy set by today’s White House? Now ask that question of every other country on the planet.
When you’re told that the Paris Treaty will achieve meaningful temperature cuts, the assumption rests on assuming almost all of the effort happening after 2030.
History gives good reason for healthy skepticism. Take President Bill Clinton’s 1993 announcement that the US would reduce emissions by 2000. According to the Washington Post, just seven years later—under the same president—the promise was dumped because “the economy has grown more rapidly than expected.” In 1992, every industrialized nation promised to return emissions in 2000 to 1990-levels. Eight years later, almost every single country missed the target.
If the planet requires a carbon “diet”, the Paris Treaty is just a promise to eat a salad. Its advocates want us to believe that, after this salad is over, we will undertake an incredibly strict exercise and diet regime. Mind you, none of the real effort will take place today or even tomorrow, but far, far in the future. Yet, we are expected to celebrate today as though a promise to continue life as normal while eating one, single salad is going to have a huge slimming effect.
Just as fallacious is the claim that solar and wind power are already taking over the world. Although much-repeated by renewable energy lobbyists and politicians, it isn’t true.
Just 0.6% of world’s energy is derived from solar and wind energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) finds that even if the Paris Treaty is fully implemented, we will get less than 3% in a quarter-century. Fossil fuels will go from meeting 81% of our energy needs to 74%—three-quarters—in 2040. In an implausible best-case scenario, 58% of our energy needs will still come from fossil fuels.
Heard that China is the world’s new “green superpower”? This doesn’t hold true, either. It gets just 0.5% of its energy from solar and wind power, less than hydropower (3%) and environmentally destructive wood-burning (7%), and insignificant compared to the 89% that comes from non-renewables.
Even in 2040, with the Paris Treaty in place, China will get 4.2% from solar and wind, with non-renewables providing 83.5%. (And even then, China’s share of green energy will be smaller than it was at any point in the 20th century.).
One of the world’s foremost energy experts, Professor Vaclav Smil, puts it this way: “Claims of a rapid transition to a zero-carbon society are plain nonsense. … even a greatly accelerated shift towards renewables would not be able to relegate fossil fuels to minority contributors to the global energy supply anytime soon, certainly not by 2050.”
If solar and wind truly were the cheapest option, the Paris Treaty would be unnecessary. Everybody would dump expensive, inefficient fossil fuels. Global warming would be fixed. Instead, in most situations, solar and wind require direct and indirect subsidies, and cutting subsidies means we get less renewable energy.
There are contexts where renewable is more efficient. But since all the solar panels or wind turbines in one place produce energy at the same time (when the sun is out and the wind is blowing), the value of electricity drops drastically, undermining competitiveness. When there is no sun or wind, we must pay for backup fossil fuels, which now cost more because they are used less.
This year, the world will spend $125 billion on subsidies just for solar and wind. Over the next 25 years, more than $3 trillion will prop up the grand “achievement” of meeting less than 3% of the planet’s energy needs.
Al Gore’s climate advisor and one of the world’s best-known climate change scientist, Jim Hansen, says: Many well-meaning people proceed under the illusion that ‘soft’ renewable energies will replace fossil fuels if the government tries harder and provides more subsidies. … But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”
Another faulty argument is the claim that “green energy creates jobs”. However, standard economic theory suggests that jobs created in this area will come at the cost of jobs elsewhere; this has been borne out by analysis in Denmark and elsewhere.
Indeed, the fact that solar energy requires more jobs per kWh than fossil fuels is actually negative. Following this logic, if we wanted dramatically more jobs in agriculture, we should stop using tractors. Why don’t we? Because society gets poorer when we invest in a less efficient way of achieving something we can do already.
This is a crucial point that Treaty advocates often overlook: doing things less efficiently has a cost. Apply this fact to a global pact in which national governments promise to use less efficient, more expensive energy, and it means that the entire world develops at a slightly slower pace.
An understandable response to such concerns is to say that doing something is better than nothing. Or to note that the Paris Treaty will help the world’s most vulnerable. True: they will still be much more vulnerable in the future than today, but slightly less than they would have been without the Treaty.
Such statements serve to reassure us that we are on the right track – but they rest on faulty logic, ignoring the alternative ways we could spend the political capital, energy, and money devoted to the Paris Treaty.
Few realize the immense expense. The annual cost adds up to $1-2 trillion by 2030 and each year for the rest of the century, mostly in GDP growth loss. This will be the most expensive treaty in history. (Indeed, costs are the key reason the “Visegrad Four” threaten to undermine the European Union’s own carbon-cutting consensus.) This is $150-$300 dollars for every person in the world, every year. It’s logical that taxpayers in wealthy nations will ask whether this is money that could be better spent on schools, hospitals, or care for the elderly.
And in the developing world, there are definitely better ways to allocate that money. The world’s climate-vulnerable are almost invariably the worst-off today. Climate is a first world concern; for the vast majority of the planet there are more immediate problems. The UN’s global poll of almost 10 million people’s priorities reveals that climate change comes last behind health, education, food, governance and other issues.
When President Obama invited African leaders to talk about green energy in 2014, they told him they needed more coal, to lift their populations out of poverty. IEA analysis shows that using more energy, mostly fossil fuels, could make these nations $8.4 trillion richer, eradicating indoor air pollution for 150 million and giving energy to another 230 million.
Analysis by Copenhagen Consensus has highlighted many phenomenal development investments where a fraction of the Treaty’s budget would make vulnerable communities much more resilient today than carbon cuts would in 100 years.
This doesn’t mean ignoring climate. We could rein in temperature rises more effectively. We need to drastically improve green energy. Research and development is key, according to Vaclav Smil, philanthropist Bill Gates, and the climate economists and 3 Nobel Laureates who participated in the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate research project.
We are far too focused on subsidizing the rollout of technology that remains inefficient and unreliable, rather than investing in innovation to drive the future price of green energy below fossil fuels. Once it is genuinely competitive, the whole world will want to leap from fossil fuels to green energy. Copenhagen Consensus research shows a meaningful R&D budget, worth around $100 billion annually, would be the most effective policy response to global warming.
The biggest misfortune for the U.S. isn’t that President Trump called time on involvement in the Paris Treaty, but that he shows no signs of investing in green energy R&D.
The tragedy for the rest of the world is that we are so intent on opposing President Trump, that we are left championing a treaty that requires hundreds of trillions of dollars to make no meaningful difference to temperature rises, instead of being open to a more effective, alternative approach.
It is too easy to criticize President Trump’s abandonment of climate policy without being honest about the severe shortcomings of the remaining global consensus. We are fooling ourselves if we pretend that the Paris Treaty is what the planet needs.