AGW, Anthropomorphic Global Warming, Bjorn Lomborg, Carbon Emissions, Climate Change, COP 21, Don Boudreaux, economic growth, Foundation For a Positive Planet, Global Carbon Budget, Industrial Pollution, IPCC, Kuznets Curve, Manhattan Institute, Natural Pollution, Oren Cass
There is virtually zero chance that the coming round of international talks on climate change will produce a substantive agreement. The United Nations’ 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) on Climate Change is scheduled will be held in Paris, France from November 30 to December 11. The failure of earlier conferences to produce a meaningful pact informs us of the low odds of success: this conference, like the others, will be unproductive in any real sense. As in the past, there are severely conflicting objectives among the parties. Oren Cass explains the reasons in a recent report from the Manhattan Institute, “Leading Nowhere: The Futility and Farce of Global Climate Negotiations“:
“… there is no plausible path to an agreement premised on collective action or compensation: developing nations that must bear the brunt of emissions reductions in any successful scenario cannot achieve those reductions while pursuing rapid economic growth; developed nations cannot sufficiently compensate developing ones for forgoing such growth. Evidence from recent negotiations, as well as preparations for the next round of talks, reinforces this conclusion. … [A] third path to an agreement—coercion—has received little attention. No group of nations appears prepared to employ the approach and risk subsequent conflict.“
Even the President of the Foundation For a Positive Planet asks, “What Purpose Does COP 21 Still Serve?”
It’s worth emphasizing that the the developing world will account for 79% of the world’s cumulative carbon emissions by 2100 under a moderate growth scenario developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Cass points out that even if the world’s developed countries ceased all carbon emissions immediately, developing countries would face an impossible task in cutting emissions sufficiently to stay within the IPCC’s estimated “safe carbon budget” for the globe. The best that can be said is that the IPCC might be trying to set the bar high for negotiators, although that would make claims of success at COP 21 difficult. Perhaps that’s fine for activists, because they’ll have an ongoing “crisis” to meet their insatiable need for doomsaying.
Relatively impoverished developing countries will not wish to sacrifice their own economic growth at the altar of climate worship without compensation. In fact, redistribution might be a better description than compensation, which just might be the real point of the conference for many developing countries. Promises of carbon reductions are not guarantees in any case. Future compensation to the developing world, if any, should be contingent on actual results. But no matter the outcome of the negotiations, the importance of cheap words will be exaggerated.
The magnitude of any negotiated reductions in carbon emissions will be inadequate to put much of a dent in actual, climate outcomes, but they will be costly. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Bjorn Lomborg describes estimates of lost global output due to proposed carbon cutbacks of $1 – $2 trillion each year by 2030 and beyond. That’s roughly 1% – 2% of projected real GDP. of course, there is considerable uncertainty around those estimates and even more around the magnitude of the possible climate effects. Lomborg estimates a best-case outcome amounting to a reduction in global temperatures of a fraction of a degree Fahrenheit. That difference could easily be swamped by natural climate effects. Worth it?
Indeed, imposed limits on economic growth will compound the difficulty of improving carbon efficiency and would consign third-world populations to an impoverished existence in both economic and environmental terms.
President Obama has promised significant carbon reduction in the U.S. However, the COP 21 negotiations do not fall under the “fast-track” authority that Obama was granted by Congress last May over trade agreements. Instead, the hoped-for climate agreement has been characterized as an update to a 1992 treaty to avoid a Congressional ratification process. In addition, Obama has already issued executive orders to push forward the climate measures he has promised to other parties to COP 21. So much for the separation of powers. However, a number of states are not taking it lying down. In fact, 24 states and others have filed suit against the new regulations, asking the D.C. Circuit Court to stay the regulatory plan while the case moves through the courts.
Anthropomorphic global warming (AGW) has been a preoccupation of the alarmist left since the late 20th century, when surface temperatures trended upward for a few decades. Climate change (10 posts at this link), on the other hand, is and always has been a fact of life, but the satellite temperature record has been trendless since the mid 1990s, while the alarmist climate models have predicted significant warming. Beyond the predictions themselves, there is little to suggest that some warming would constitute a disaster for mankind, and perhaps it would be a boon.
Nevertheless, even if we stipulate that carbon emissions must be reduced, there is an innocuous alternative to government regulatory intrusions and taxes for achieving that end: the enhanced carbon efficiency and technological innovation that economic growth makes possible. One of my favorite bloggers, economist Don Boudreaux, explains the logic of this alternative in this excellent post: “Economic Growth and Pollution Abatement“. He takes a “broad view” of pollution, not simply carbon or other industrial pollutants, because there are many forms of “natural” pollution that inflict greater misery than carbon ever will. With that in mind, Boudreaux appeals to the following relationships between pollution and income (or production):
Here is his description of the chart:
“The red curve in the nearby graph is the standard environmental Kuznets curve. This red curve shows the relationship between per-capita income and industrial pollutants. The blue curve shows the relationship between per-capita income and what we might, as a short-hand, call “naturally occurring pollutants” (that is, filth such as bacteria, mud on indoor floors, and rodent and bird droppings from the ceiling of one’s home).“
The red curve implies that a cleaner environment is a “luxury good”. I would also point out that the ascent of the red line at relatively low income levels will be muted by the substitution of cleaner fuels for primitive forms such as dung- and wood-burning, often burned indoors. This is consistent with Boudreaux’s point, though in a way that is not directly addressed by his explanation of the chart:
“… my hypothesis – which I believe is borne out by the historical record – is that people almost immediately start to consume greater cleanliness as they become wealthier.“
The combination of the two lines in the chart shows that economic growth is not unambiguously “bad” for the environment. It has certainly proven to be a good thing in terms of human health and welfare. As a consequence, developing countries should not be so foolish as to sacrifice economic growth for immediate carbon reductions. On the other hand, they may well make “promises” in exchange for massive compensation.
Neither should the world be singularly focused on immediate carbon reductions, because economic growth will be accompanied by improvements in carbon efficiency and the development of technologies far superior to today’s wasteful renewables. The activists attending COP 21 hope to improve the world, but they would saddle humanity with unnecessary burdens. I pity the denizens of countries whose leaders force costly authoritarian energy policies upon them in an effort to set, or comply with, a radical agenda. Oh, wait, that might be us! But I am optimistic that any agreement reached in Paris, if there is any, won’t hold or won’t matter.