US Climate Change – Don’t Worry, Be Happy

BP recently released its 66th annual statistical review of world energy. This is a remarkable achievement and a library of data worth paying attention to. It tells us that carbon emissions for the last year were essentially flat, as was global energy use. Perhaps President Trump had an early copy – it would explain why he felt comfortable pulling out of the Paris Accords. All is good: both global and US climate change is under control and there is no need to worry.

Energy Consumption: What Are the Factors?

Global energy demand was weak. Half of all growth came from India and China. The mix of energy sources continued to shift away from coal and towards renewable energy (a third of total growth), although the latter accounts for only four percent of global energy consumption. Because of the shift in mix and the softness of overall demand, carbon emissions are essentially flat. Is it a long run trend or cyclically driven – a result of lower growth in China, for example, or a result of a shifting pattern of energy consumption as China changes from developing to developed?

Carbon Emissions

Flat carbon emissions suggest that there is no need to worry. On the other hand, according to BP,

“The world economy is expected to almost double over the next 20 years, driven by emerging economies, with growth averaging 3.4% per year and, more than 2 billion people lifted from low incomes. Meanwhile, the world’s population is projected to increase by around 1.5 billion people to reach nearly 8.8 billion.”

That means more cars, white goods, air travel, etc. The world needs to keep running just to stand still. Complacency will not get the job done, and we will quickly lose ground.

Why So Much Heat?

To say the discussion about climate change is politicised is an understatement. One camp views the concern about climate change to be a conspiracy of the ‘left’ to appropriate trillions of dollars of resources from the developed world and redistribute them to the developing world while siphoning a significant percentage to elites investing their time and energy for ‘the cause’. The other camp is simply horrified – outraged – that anyone could doubt the need to take urgent action to prevent the world burning up in a suffocating cloud of carbon.

Planet Earth is largely indifferent to whether we deal with the issue of climate change or ignore it. The planet has shown the ability to regenerate and evolve. Its timetable is unknown and there is no morality in the life and times of the universe. It helps to be clear that the real issue is whether the planet remains a pleasant place to be for the human race. Biodiversity and the ability of the atmosphere to absorb carbon dioxide are critical to our survival.

Competition for Resources in Alleviating Human Misery

How much should be spent in pursuit of the IPCC’s targeted reduction of 1.5% in global temperatures by 2025-2030? Clean energy, reducing the utilisation of non-renewable resources, limiting ocean acidification, the rise of sea levels, the reduction in biodiversity and doing as much as possible to leave as small a footprint as is possible are all laudable objectives. However, how should the cost of meeting the IPCC goal be measured and compared to the cost of reducing diseases of human misery such as cholera, malaria, Zika, and the West Nile virus? How are these matters inter-related? What is the utility benchmark against which these competing goals can be measured? Is there a per dollar human benefit/detriment measure that can help?

How to Proceed?

The recent decision by the Trump administration to pull out of the Paris Accords very clearly surrenders leadership in the debate about climate change solutions. It sets a tone for US participation that emphasises narrow national interest over global context. While climate change is more easily measured and understood on a local level, climate factors are indifferent to national and political boundaries. Success in impacting global temperatures requires all 190 signatories to the Accords to take their part in meeting their obligations.

Historically, a popular narrative has been that China and India’s carbon footprints and their willingness to compromise climate goals in favour of economic development severely undercut the efforts of the rest of the world. Not anymore. Recent research restates this narrative and indicts President Trump’s policies.

Progress is not a luxury. While it is encouraging that corporations and individual cities and states in the US are affirming their commitment to climate change initiatives, President Trump surrendering a seat at the international table is a step backwards and must be a cause for concern. Clear thinking, honest debates with a clear understanding of underlying motivations, accurate measurement criteria and a detailed understanding of associated costs are all critical to a proper allocation of resources to achieve goals that are realistic and can be clearly articulated.

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