It’s 18 degrees and snowing outside as I write this, and I have to admit, I’m currently leaning toward the side of a little global warming. On a more serious note, let’s step aside from the arguments about why the models have failed to predict climate change accurately. Let us forget about debating whether or not we are in a warming phase, stagnant phase or heading into a cooling phase. Let us also put aside the debate about whether or not climate change is man-made or attributed to other forces. Let us, for the sake of discussion, assume that President Obama is 100% right and that the science is settled, that the world is headed toward catastrophe and that fossil fuels and capitalism in general are to blame.
I would argue, even if we accept those premises, that the entire climate change discussion still borders on absurdity. After more than a decade of futile effort, 195 nations agreed to a plan that will limit climate change. This accord requires the world’s economies to regulate the emission of gases that scientists say are causing the earth to warm.
After two weeks of negotiations in Paris at the COP 21 climate change conference, 195 countries united Saturday around a document that is effectively a blueprint for how the world will tackle global warming, which sounds great if you accept the general premise. Of course, the devil is always in the details. Here are a few of the key provisions that helps one understand what was truly accomplished.
Changes were made to water down the agreement so it didn’t require approval by the U.S. Congress, but it also means that any new president can simply remove the U.S. or elect not to abide by any or all of the agreement. In essence, even though there were 195 signees, there isn’t a whole lot there to hold parties to the agreement.
In fact, just to get the developing (poorer) countries to sign on, the U.S. and European Union pledged $100 billion to these countries to help them cope with or respond to climate change. China and India, two of the largest emitters, are still focused on growing their economies, but for the first time they weren’t left out of the agreement.
No, they didn’t agree to reduce emissions, but they have been charged with the goal of slowing down the rate of growth of their greenhouse emissions. It is debatable whether they will abide with their climate change goals rather than continue to focus on the more politically expedient need of raising millions of their citizenry out of poverty, but they are at least are expected to try.
The hope is that this agreement will push countries away from their reliance on fossil fuels and toward new technologies. Sadly, wind and solar power continue to be far more expensive and remain uncompetitive with fossil fuels. The subsidies will have to continue or increase to make that shift. However, Bill Gates once again offered a well-reasoned approach; technically this was outside the agreement, but he provided a mechanism that would produce an investment of more than $20 billion in research with the goal of finding a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
The goal is noble—limit the world’s warming to 2 degrees Celsius using the pre-industrial age as the baseline. In fact, the signing countries ambitiously say that they would like to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The catch is that if fully implemented, this agreement will only accomplish a small fraction of that, according to scientists at MIT and other institutions. According to the U.N., the earth has warmed nearly 0.9 degrees since the late 1800s.
Everyone sets their own rules
The accord has several weak spots in that it allows each nation to determine its own emission reduction plans, which no other country can challenge. So essentially, it becomes a battle of political wills. But because the economic costs and corresponding standard of living reductions in achieving climate change goals are significant, is hard to imagine that any serious reductions will occur.
Certainly, the U.S. wasn’t going to give control of its budget or economy over to the U.N., but it also means that this accord has less legal authority than a handshake. Some of the goals are ambitious, like reducing net carbon dioxide emissions to zero, but the voluntary plans from each country are not expected to reach the 2 degree target. Of course, as politicians are famous for doing, this was actually kicked down the road, with most of the real bite coming in 10, 20 and 30 years. Not surprisingly, the developed countries are expected to provide further payments to developing countries after 2020, above and beyond the first $100 billion.
The COP 21 climate conference was a huge success in terms of political maneuvering, but falls short when it comes to substance. The Champs-Elysees, a historic boulevard in Paris, is a great example. It was lit with millions of sparkling lights during the conference that were to be powered with renewable energy. A huge wind turbine and over 440 solar panels had been installed to achieve this. During the night, there was neither sunlight nor wind, so people were asked to power the lights via stationary bikes and hamster wheels.
That makes for great imagery. Yet, like the accord in general, it was more about style than substance. The agreement, if enacted, will cost $1 trillion or more globally and will not come close to reaching the temperature goals. Most of the cost and changes are slotted to occur decades from now. It is like the lights on the Paris Roundabout. The energy produced by the wind turbine, solar panels and bicycles didn’t produce even a tenth of the energy required to run the lights. The great irony is that it was estimated that the power needed to manufacture and move the bikes, batteries, wind turbine and solar panels produced higher CO2 emissions than was saved. If one would have simply offset the energy cost of producing coal-generated electricity, the offsets to the European Trading System would have cost about 120 euros or about $110 dollars.
Bill Gates, on the other hand, proposed something of real value, a renewable energy innovation fund. This money would be used to develop viable renewable energy. It is estimated that we will spend over $3 trillion just subsidizing renewable energy over the next 30 years. Bill Gates’s approach looks at spending billions on research and development so that we might have a viable alternative. Until we develop real answers, we will continue to see politicians using global change as a means of concentrating power and equalizing global income inequities.
The one thing that starch critics and proponents of climate change both agree on is that this accord serves no role except to give politicians an opportunity to declare victory for doing nothing.
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