Even the best-case sce­nar­ios prom­ise tiny im­prove­ments at too high a cost

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER -

Re­cent weather dis­as­ters — flood­ing across Asia and hur­ri­canes hit­ting the US and Caribbean — have only in­creased the vol­ume from com­men­ta­tors and politi­cians who tell us: “This is what cli­mate change looks like.”

The de­struc­tion, they say, pro- vides added rea­son to dou­ble down on the Paris Agree­ment, the cli­mate pact adopted in De­cem­ber 2015. Those who don’t think this way are haters and wreck­ers, no dif­fer­ent from Don­ald Trump, who can­celled US in­volve­ment in the treaty.

The US ap­proach to cli­mate change is ob­vi­ously deeply prob­lem­atic. The Pres­i­dent has failed to even ac­knowl­edge that cli­mate change is real, and his ad­min­is­tra­tion lacks any for­ward-look­ing cli­mate pol­icy.

But if we are go­ing to tackle cli- mate change ef­fec­tively, we must also be able to ad­mit that the Paris Agree­ment doesn’t with­stand scru­tiny. And if our goal is to help those who will be hurt most by fu­ture hur­ri­canes, we have more ef­fec­tive pol­icy op­tions.

When the agree­ment was signed, the rhetoric was grandiose: we were told in no un­cer­tain terms that the pact would keep tem­per­a­ture rises “well be­low 2C”, with 195 coun­tries “pur­su­ing ef­forts to limit the tem­per­a­ture in­crease to 1.5C”.

But to get a sense of what Paris will ac­tu­ally achieve, we need to ig­nore the big talk and look at the ac­tual na­tional car­bon-cut­ting prom­ises made through to 2030.

The find­ings from the ma­jor cli­mate mod­els are clear: achiev­ing the 1.5C tar­get would re­quire noth­ing less than the en­tire planet aban­don­ing the use of ev­ery sin­gle fos­sil fuel in less than four years.

Let’s think about what that looks like. Come Jan­uary 2021, we would have no new iron or steel, which un­der­gird global construction, but still lack a “green” al­ter­na­tive. No more fos­sil fuel-based ce­ment, which at about four bil­lion tonnes an­nu­ally is the build­ing block of the mod­ern age. Al­most no plas­tics, which per­me­ate mod­ern life. And un­less an ef­fec­tive, scal­able al­ter­na­tive re­places the present way of mak­ing fer­tiliser, we would be look­ing at half of hu­man­ity starv­ing. This prom­ise is so lightly de­liv­ered by politi­cians, but achiev­ing 1.5C re­quires us to shut down the power sources for more than four-fifths of the planet’s econ­omy in less than 40 months.

It is tes­ta­ment to the warped cli­mate con­ver­sa­tion that it is ac­tu­ally nec­es­sary to spell this out: no, that is not go­ing to hap­pen.

Even more damn­ing is the fact the ac­tual na­tional prom­ises made in Paris are also nowhere near enough to keep tem­per­a­ture rises un­der the more lax 2C tar­get.

The UN Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change — the or­gan­i­sa­tion in charge of the Paris meet­ing — es­ti­mates that if ev­ery coun­try makes ev­ery sin­gle promised car­bon cut between 2016 and 2030 to the fullest ex­tent pos­si­ble and there is no car­bon leak­age, it will be equiv­a­lent to cut­ting car- bon diox­ide by 60 gi­ga­tonnes by 2030. It is widely ac­knowl­edged that to keep tem­per­a­ture rises be­low 2C, we must re­duce CO2 equiv­a­lent emis­sions by nearly 6000Gt.

This means that even in an im­plau­si­bly op­ti­mistic best-case sce­nario, Paris leaves 99 per cent of the prob­lem in place.

Ac­cord­ing to the UN’s own cli­mate model, the dif­fer­ence between a world with all the promised Paris cuts and one with­out them is just 0.05C. Even if ev­ery na­tion in­clud­ing the US ex­tended its car­bon cut prom­ises past 2030 and kept them go­ing through­out the cen­tury, tem­per­a­tures would drop by less than 0.2C.

So, how do politi­cians get away with claim­ing the agree­ment would achieve a lot more? This rests on sophistry, and specif­i­cally

Achiev­ing the 1.5C tar­get would re­quire end­ing the use of ev­ery sin­gle fos­sil fuel in less than four years

on the far-fetched as­ser­tion that much stronger car­bon cuts could hap­pen af­ter 2030. When you hear a claim such as “Paris will cut tem­per­a­tures 1.6C by the end of the cen­tury”, it re­lies on noth­ing but a wish and a prayer that an ad­di­tional 4100Gt of CO2 equiv­a­lent will be cut af­ter the Paris Agree­ment runs out in 2030.

Be­lieve that and you need to be­lieve that a ma­jor cam­paign prom­ise made by pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in 1993 would be hap­pily ful­filled by Trump to­day, or that a Demo­crat (or even a Re­pub­li­can) in 2035 will feel hon­our-bound by a pol­icy set by to­day’s White House. His­tory gives very good rea­son for healthy scep­ti­cism. In 1992, to take just one ex­am­ple, ev­ery in­dus­tri­alised na­tion promised to re­turn emis­sions to 1990 lev­els by 2000. Eight years later, al­most ev­ery coun­try missed the tar­get.

If the planet re­quires a car­bon diet, then the Paris Agree­ment is just a flip­pant prom­ise to eat one salad. Its ad­vo­cates want us to be­lieve that, af­ter this salad, we will un­der­take an in­cred­i­bly strict ex­er­cise and diet reg­i­men. Mind you, none of the real ef­fort will take place to­day or even to­mor­row but far in the fu­ture. Yet we are ex­pected to be­lieve that a prom­ise to con­tinue life as nor­mal while eat­ing a sin­gle salad is go­ing to have a dra­matic slim­ming ef­fect.

All this shows that, even in a best-case sce­nario, we are go­ing to end up with a frac­tion of what politi­cians claim — about 60Gt. But things get worse. Na­tions are fall­ing short even of achiev­ing that.

A study of the Paris treaty in Na­ture finds that “no ma­jor ad­vanced in­dus­tri­alised coun­try is on track to meet its pledges”. Not a sin­gle wealthy, ma­jor emit­ter is set to meet its prom­ises.

Ja­pan promised to cut emis­sions by 18 per cent be­low 1990 lev­els by 2030, but the anal­y­sis finds that it is on tar­get to cut just 4 per cent. The EU vowed to cut emis­sions to 40 per cent be­low its 1990 level by 2030 but has en­acted poli­cies that will re­duce less than half that: 19 per cent. Even in­clud­ing pledged poli­cies, it will make it to less than 30 per cent.

And the US was off-track long be­fore Trump quit the Paris Agree­ment. Barack Obama promised in Paris to cut emis­sions to 18 per cent be­low 1990 lev­els by 2025 but never backed this with suf­fi­cient leg­is­la­tion. With the Clean Power Plan and pledged poli­cies, he would have achieved at most a 7 per cent re­duc­tion.

Yet many of us still have a sense that so­lar and wind is sweep­ing across the world, a cost-un­der­cut­ting mir­a­cle that will swiftly over­take fos­sil fu­els and save the day. So­lar and wind get good PR. But if they were cheaper than fos­sil fu­els, ev­ery­one would switch. We wouldn’t need meet­ings in Paris or to worry about the likes of Trump: ev­ery busi­ness and govern­ment on the planet would leap to the cheaper en­ergy source. The cli­mate prob­lem would be solved.

A close look at the data and sce­nar­ios from the OECD’s In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency, the fore­most en­ergy an­a­lysts, re­veals that just 0.6 per cent of the world’s en­ergy is to­day de­rived from so­lar pho­to­voltaic and wind en­ergy tech­nol­ogy.

In its “new poli­cies sce­nario”, where it as­sumes the Paris Agree­ment to be fully im­ple­mented, the IEA finds that so­lar PV and wind will pro­vide less than 3 per cent of our needs in a quar­ter-cen­tury.

Fos­sil fu­els will go from meet­ing 81 per cent of our en­ergy needs to 74 per cent in 2040. Even in an ut­terly im­plau­si­ble, su­per-green sce­nario, IEA finds 58 per cent of our en­ergy needs in a quar­ter-cen­tury will come from fos­sil fu­els.

There’s more. We of­ten hear that China is the world’s new “green su­per­power” but this doesn’t hold true. It gets just 0.5 per cent of its en­ergy from so­lar and wind power, less than its hy­dropower (3 per cent) and its en­vi­ron­men­tally de­struc­tive wood­burn­ing (7 per cent), and in­signif­i­cant com­pared with the 89 per cent from non-re­new­ables.

Even in 2040, with the Paris Agree­ment in place, China will get 4.2 per cent from so­lar and wind, with non-re­new­ables pro­vid­ing 83.5 per cent. (And even then China’s share of green en­ergy will be smaller than it was at any point in the 20th cen­tury.)

Look­ing glob­ally, one of the world’s fore­most en­ergy ex­perts, 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.”

There are con­texts where re­new­ables are 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 or the wind is blow­ing), the value of elec­tric­ity drops dras­ti­cally as more and more is pro­duced, un­der­min­ing com­pet­i­tive­ness. When there is no sun or wind, we must still pay for back-up fos­sil fu­els, which now cost more be­cause they are used less.

This year, IEA ev­i­dence shows that the world will spend $US125 bil­lion ($160bn) on sub­si­dis­ing so­lar and wind. Dur­ing the next 25 years, more than $US3 tril­lion will prop up the grand “achieve­ment” of meet­ing less than 3 per cent of the planet’s en­ergy needs. In 2040, even with a car­bon tax and the Paris Agree­ment fully im­ple­mented, the IEA finds that on av­er­age non-hy­dro re­new­ables will be the most ex­pen­sive power you can pro­duce.

Jim Hansen, a one-time ad­viser to Al Gore and one of the world’s best-known cli­mate change sci­en­tists, puts it bluntly: “Many wellmean­ing peo­ple pro­ceed un­der the il­lu­sion that ‘soft’ re­new­able en­er­gies will re­place fos­sil fu­els if the govern­ment tries harder and pro­vides more sub­si­dies … But sug- gest­ing 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.”

An un­der­stand­able re­sponse to such con­cerns is to say that do­ing some­thing is bet­ter than noth­ing. Or to note that the Paris Agree­ment will help the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble. They still will be more vul­ner­a­ble in the fu­ture than to­day, but slightly less so than they would have been with­out it.

Such state­ments in­cor­rectly re­as­sure us that we are on the right track. But they ig­nore the treaty’s huge cost and the al­ter­na­tive ways we could spend the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal, en­ergy, and money de­voted to th­ese fee­ble cuts. The politi­cians who signed the ac­cord in De­cem­ber 2015 cer­tainly weren’t crowing about the price tag. But wind and so­lar en­ergy aren’t ready to fully com­pete yet, and do­ing things less ef­fi­ciently has a cost.

In this global pact, what na­tional gov­ern­ments have promised to do is to use less ef­fi­cient, more ex­pen­sive en­ergy. This means the en­tire world will grow at a slightly slower pace than it would have.

Us­ing the best peer-re­viewed en­ergy-eco­nomic mod­els, we can cal­cu­late the cost for ma­jor economies and find a global price tag from this. In to­tal the loss in gross do­mes­tic prod­uct growth from Paris adds up to $US1 tril­lion to $US2 tril­lion ev­ery year by 2030, and for ev­ery year the rest of the cen­tury. This makes Paris the most ex­pen­sive treaty in his­tory.

It is the equiv­a­lent of tak­ing $US150 to $US300 off ev­ery per- son on the planet ev­ery year. It’s rea­son­able for tax­pay­ers to ask whether keep­ing this money would mean it could be bet­ter spent on schools, hospi­tals or care for the el­derly.

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; the vast ma­jor­ity of the planet’s in­hab­i­tants face more im­me­di­ate problems. The UN’s largest global poll of nearly 10 mil­lion peo­ple’s pri­or­i­ties re­veals cli­mate change comes last for most of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, be­hind ed­u­ca­tion, health, food and 12 other, more press­ing, is­sues.

Anal­y­sis by Copen­hagen Con­sen­sus has high­lighted many phe­nom­e­nal de­vel­op­ment in­vest­ments where a frac­tion of the Paris treaty’s bud­get would help vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties much more to­day than car­bon cuts would in 100 years: things such as step­ping up in­vest­ment in com­bat­ing tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, nu­tri­tional in­vest­ments for young chil­dren, vac­ci­na­tions and achiev­ing uni­ver­sal ac­cess to fam­ily plan­ning.

But what of the weather events that have sparked the most re­cent calls for cli­mate ac­tion? As the US and Asia have been bat­tered by hur­ri­canes and flood-caus­ing storms in re­cent months, we of­ten have been told that, out of con­cern for fu­ture weather event vic­tims, we must im­ple­ment strong car­bon cuts. (Even in other parts of the world, it seems, US weather dom­i­nates news cy­cles and has po­lit­i­cal ef­fects.)

It’s a pow­er­ful idea that su­per­fi­cially feels like it makes sense: the weather is caus­ing problems, and cli­mate change af­fects the weather, there­fore we should fix the prob­lem through car­bon cuts.

The ini­tial prob­lem is with the premise that cli­mate change is be­hind the weather events that we see on the news. We ac­tu­ally can’t tell at present.

The lat­est global as­sess­ment from the UN’s In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change con­cludes that “there is low con­fi­dence in at­tri­bu­tion of changes in trop­i­cal cy­clone (hur­ri­cane) ac­tiv­ity to hu­man in­flu­ence”. The US Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion is even more blunt: “It is pre­ma­ture to con­clude that hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties — and par­tic­u­larly green­house gas emis­sions that cause global warm­ing — have al­ready had a de­tectable im­pact on At­lantic hur­ri­cane or global trop­i­cal cy­clone ac­tiv­ity.”

As for flood­ing, the UN tells us it even doesn’t know whether global warm­ing makes the fre­quency and mag­ni­tude of flood­ing worse or bet­ter.

This sim­ply means all the pun­dits claim­ing “this is global warm­ing” and “we knew” are wrong. And they also ne­glect to men­tion the fact the num­ber of strong hur­ri­canes hit­ting the US has dropped dur­ing the past 140 years.

Now, many com­men­ta­tors will point out that cli­mate catas­tro­phes are get­ting more ex­pen­sive. This is true. But it is not be­cause of cli­mate; it is be­cause more peo­ple live by the seashore, with more prop­erty. Ad­justed for pop­u­la­tion and wealth, US hur­ri­cane dam­age costs de­creased slightly between 1900 and 2013. Not sur­pris­ingly, that is why the UN finds that losses ad­justed for pop­u­la­tion and wealth “have not been at­trib­uted to nat­u­ral or an­thro­pogenic cli­mate change”. Glob­ally, the rel­a­tive cost of cli­mate-re­lated dis­as­ters to GDP has de­clined al­most 50 per cent since 1990.

In the long run, it is likely that cli­mate change will cause hur­ri­canes to be­come some­what stronger but also less fre­quent. Yet so­ci­eties also will be­come wealth­ier and more re­silient. A Na­ture re­view puts this into per­spec­tive. It shows that hur­ri­cane dam­age cur­rently costs 0.04 per cent of global GDP. By 2100, the in­crease in wealth and re­silience would mean that hur­ri­cane dam­age would drop four­fold to 0.01 per cent of global GDP. But if we fail to do any­thing about global warm­ing, then the ef­fect of mak­ing hur­ri­canes fewer but stronger will mean to­tal dam­age ends up at about 0.02 per cent — that’s still half the im­pact of hur­ri­canes to­day.

This is why far fewer Amer­i­cans die in hur­ri­canes to­day than they did 100 years ago. They are sim­ply much richer and their so­ci­ety much more re­silient.

What’s more, the idea that to­day’s car­bon cuts are the so­lu­tion to to­mor­row’s storms doesn’t stack up. Re­mem­ber, even if ev­ery na­tion in­clud­ing the US ex­tended its Paris Agree­ment prom­ises past 2030 and kept them go­ing through­out the cen­tury, tem­per­a­tures would drop by less than 0.2C. The hugely ex­pen­sive treaty will have no mean­ing­ful im­pact on hur­ri­canes, and what tiny change it will achieve will not be felt for gen­er­a­tions.

In­deed, one peer-re­viewed ar­ti­cle finds that any re­al­is­ti­cally achiev­able cli­mate pol­icy “can have at best only a very small and per­haps im­per­cep­ti­ble ef­fect on global trop­i­cal cy­clone dam­age”.

In­stead, adap­ta­tion can be up to 52 times more ef­fec­tive. This means cre­at­ing bet­ter, more com­mon­sense zon­ing laws so houses aren’t built in harm’s way. It means set­ting aside more wet­lands to pre­vent flood surges. It means build- ing bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing dykes and lev­ees.

And it means re­mem­ber­ing the sim­ple, cheap poli­cies such as sub­way cov­ers that New York City dis­cov­ered it was lack­ing when Su­per­storm Sandy hit.

It is es­ti­mated that bet­ter build­ing codes could have avoided about 87 per cent of the dam­age caused by Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. It’s truly ab­surd that com­men­ta­tors cheer on the Paris Agree­ment — which would avoid next to no dam­age, 100 years from now — in­stead of fo­cus­ing on th­ese plan­ning and construction laws.

This holds true also if we look at poorer coun­tries. Cli­mate is not the only chal­lenge fac­ing them and, as the UN sur­vey shows, is prob­a­bly their least im­por­tant chal­lenge. It is a cruel re­al­ity that nat­u­ral dis­as­ters of­ten af­flict the poor­est, most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of so­ci­ety the most. But the world’s poor clearly tell us they want their chil­dren to stop dy­ing from in­fec­tious dis­eases, they want enough food and a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion. Achiev­ing th­ese things means that, aside from the di­rect ben­e­fits, we make the planet’s most vul­ner­a­ble richer and more re­silient against many chal­lenges, cli­mate in­cluded.

This is why we have seen a dra­matic drop in deaths from cli­mate across the world, de­spite the claims of green cam­paign­ers. In the 1920s, deaths from floods, droughts, storms, wild­fires and ex­treme tem­per­a­tures cost on av­er­age 500,000 lives a year. To­day, be­cause bil­lions have been pulled out of poverty and we have in­creased re­silience, the av­er­age death toll has dropped by 95 per cent to less than 25,000. The per­sonal risk has de­creased al­most 99 per cent.

We face a stark choice: if we want to help to­mor­row’s hur­ri­cane and flood vic­tims, do we want to fo­cus on very ex­pen­sive cli­mate poli­cies that will take for­ever and pro­vide al­most no help, or do we want to spend less, to help more, faster? We need to re­alise that core de­vel­op­ment spend­ing and poverty re­duc­tion are key parts of our global warm­ing re­sponse.

But this doesn’t mean we should ig­nore cli­mate change. We need to dras­ti­cally im­prove green en­ergy. Re­search and de­vel­op­ment is the best way for­ward, ac­cord­ing to cli­mate econ­o­mists and three No­bel lau­re­ates who par­tic­i­pated in the Copen­hagen Con­sen­sus on Cli­mate re­search project. We are far too fo­cused on sub­si­dis­ing 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. This is why Bill Gates, Obama, Malcolm Turn­bull and many oth­ers promised at the side­lines of Paris to dou­ble green en­ergy R&D spend­ing.

This is an ex­cel­lent start, although our anal­y­sis shows that we should be even more am­bi­tious, in­creas­ing in­vest­ments six­fold. This would be much more ef­fec­tive and much cheaper than Paris.

And when we are told to im­ple­ment sub­sidy-soaked cli­mate poli­cies out of con­cern for hur­ri­cane vic­tims in Hous­ton or flood vic­tims in Hy­der­abad, we must push back and in­stead fo­cus on the most ef­fec­tive way to achieve the great­est good.

If so­lar and wind were cheaper than fos­sil fu­els, we would all switch. We wouldn’t need meet­ings in Paris or to worry about the likes of Trump

The af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in Hous­ton last month; to mit­i­gate the ef­fects of ex­treme weather events, it would be far more use­ful to di­vert re­sources from ac­tion on cli­mate change to bet­ter plan­ning

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