Ronald Bailey: How UN Climate Change Negotiations Threaten Economic Growth

  • Date: 12/12/12
  • Ronald Bailey, Reason Online

Misguided responses to man-made climate change pose a severe threat to future human prosperity.

Over the weekend, the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP-18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) sputtered to its conclusion in Doha, Qatar. The delegates did agree to meet again next year to discuss the adoption of some kind of legally binding agreement to ration carbon by 2015. Otherwise, on the face of it, nothing much concrete was accomplished in Doha, but the process itself poses the danger that policymakers will, step-by-inadvertent-step, adopt policies deleterious to the future prosperity of humanity.

The first big item on the Doha agenda was keeping the Kyoto Protocol on some sort of life support. Adopted in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol required 35 rich countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by about 5.2 percent below what they emitted in back in 1990. The original Kyoto Protocol would have obliged the U.S. to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 7 percent below its 1990 levels. However, the U.S. never ratified the treaty and now Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Russia have pulled out.

At Doha, in what amounts to a mostly symbolic gesture, only the European Union, Australia, Ukraine, Switzerland, and Norway agreed to remain in the treaty that, in any case, covers only 15 percent of the world’s GHG emissions. And instead of binding commitments, each country gets to pick its own emissions targets for 2020. The countries that remain in the rump Kyoto Protocol promised to let the U.N. know what their new emissions reduction commitments (if any) will be next year. As noted, a largely symbolic act.

At the Doha climate change conference, the U.S. reiterated the pledge that President Barack Obama made at the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009 to cut U.S. greenhouse emissions by 2020 to 17 percent below their 2005 levels. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, net U.S. GHG emissions amounted to 6,118 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent that year. This means that the Obama administration’s goal is to reduce GHG emissions from the U.S. to below 5,077 gigatons in 2020.

Earlier this year, the Energy Information Administration reported that energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide had fallen to 1,340 gigatons in the first quarter, back to its level in 1992. The drop was the result of switching from coal to less carbon intensive natural gas to produce electricity, as well as a 15 percent drop in highway miles travelled by Americans as a result of the Great Recession.

To get some idea of what this means for the trend in overall GHG emissions, the first quarter emission implies a total of 5,360 gigatons of energy related emissions of carbon dioxide for 2012. The Environmental Protection Agency pegs those carbon dioxide emissions at 5,933 in 2005 along with an additional 174 gigatons of carbon dioxide from other sources for a total of 6,107 gigatons. EPA data shows that the emissions of the other greenhouse gases and the sinks (mostly forests) that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere essentially balance out at 1,095 and 1,085 gigatons, respectively, in 2005. So adding an additional 10 gigatons yields the EPA’s net emissions total of 6,118 for 2005.

Adding 184 gigatons to 5,360 gigatons yields net carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of 5,544 gigatons in 2012. These calculations would suggest that 2012 emissions are already more than 9 percent below their 2005 levels. Conversely, since net GHG emissions were 5,293 gigatons in 1990, this also implies that current emissions are a bit over 4 percent higher than they were then.

At the Doha climate change conference the delegates from 194 countries spent most of their time squabbling over how much money the rich countries purportedly owe to the poor countries in what amounts to climate change reparations. First, the conference endorsed activities that would lead to the creation of a Green Climate Fund. Second, the Doha delegates launched another negotiating process to create an “international mechanism” that aims to address “loss and damage associated with climate change impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” Let’s provisionally call that “international mechanism” the Climate Reparations Fund.

Back in 2009 at the collapsing Copenhagen climate change conference, the United States, the European Union, and other rich countries agreed to put $100 billion per year into a Green Climate Fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change by 2020. In Doha, the rich countries agreed again to do that. In addition, the conference decided that the Green Climate Fund will be headquartered in the South Korean city of Sondgo. Poor countries, however, do not want to wait another seven years for climate change compensation, so they also were angling for commitments of $60 billion in climate change aid between now and 2015. At the Doha conference, Britain, Germany, and some other countries vaguely pledged to throw in $6 billion or so.

In addition to the Green Climate Fund, the poor countries want even more money from the rich countries to compensate them for the “loss and damage” caused by climate change. The idea is that the rich countries have loaded up the atmosphere with GHGs that are dangerously warming the atmosphere and provoking all sorts of weather disasters, floods, droughts, hurricanes, storm surges, and so forth. Since the rich countries grew wealthy by destroying the world’s weather, they should pay off the poor whom they have harmed. How much? Another $100 billion annually on top of the $100 billion slated for the Green Climate Fund. For comparison, in 2010 development aid from rich countries to poor countries totaled $128 billion.

How to tell if a particular storm or a drought is the result of man-made global warming or would have happened anyway? After all, deadly storms killed hundreds of thousands, floods drowned millions, and tens of millions died in famines caused by drought well before humanity began to boost significantly the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies researcher James Hansen and his colleagues argued earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that increasing GHG levels have loaded the “climate dice” so that the chances of weather extremes are now much higher now than they were back in the halcyon era between 1951 and 1980. Maybe so.

But if a particular heat wave is, say, a degree warmer than a particular region’s average heat wave (whatever that may signify), does that mean that the “loss and damage” attributed to global warming is confined to just that additional one degree above average temperature? And what about the converse case; how might the benefits of extra warming be accounted for? Recent winters in the U.S. have been warmer on average, slashing the home heating bills faced by consumers. Would consumers be obligated to pay the oil, natural gas, and coal companies for beneficent weather and compensate them as well for the loss of business?

One suggestion for avoiding messy case-by-case adjudication of blame for climate disasters would be to empower U.N bureaucrats to allocate billions in reparations based on climate model projections of what the extra climate-related costs each country would suffer. Deciding which model to use in calculating losses and damages will, to say the least, be problematic.

At the end, ideological environmentalists ritually denounced the Doha conference for its “lack of ambition,” meaning that the world’s governments failed to enact the onerous energy rationing they prefer. For example, Friends of the Earth International spokesperson Asad Rehman said, “The Doha deal is as empty as a desert mirage. Despite the official spin, these talks delivered nothing — no real progress on cutting greenhouse gases and only an insulting gesture at climate finance.”

Mirages infamously can mislead people into danger. U.N. climate negotiations are no different. They slowly entangle countries and lead them toward policies that they would not adopt on their own. Consider the case of the $100 billion Green Climate Fund. President Obama proposed it in the hastily cobbled together Copenhagen Accord as a way to avert the public relations embarrassment of a total collapse of the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009. At the 2010 Cancun climate change conference, the process for setting up the Green Climate Fund was formally adopted, and at the 2011 Durban conference its charter and board of directors were launched. At Doha, it was agreed that it would begin disbursing funds in 2014.

Now the Doha conference has upped the climate change compensation ante by another $100 billion to a total of as much as $200 billion per year after 2020. Development economist William Easterly has argued, “Spending $2.3 trillion (measured in today’s dollars) in aid over the past five decades has left the most aid-intensive regions, like Africa, wallowing in continued stagnation; it’s fair to say this approach has not been a great success.” Given this history of failure it is extremely doubtful that handing out billions in climate change reparations to the kleptocratic governments that hold sway in far too many poor countries would be an effective way to address the problems of climate change.

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