What if nobody means it?
Since Cole Porter wrote the tune in 1953, vocalists have sung that they “love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles.” There are signs that this summer the word might be “fizzles.”
In March, G-20 finance ministers representing the world’s largest economies drafted a statement for issuance this July. Last July, they endorsed the 2015 Paris climate agreement’s proposed yearly transfer of $100 billion to less-developed nations to reduce CO2 emissions. This year, emphasizing “scarce public resources,” the G-20 draft introduced an entirely different approach, urging development banks to raise private money for climate programs and leaving government funding unmentioned.
Going Their Own Way
The finance ministers’ retreat from Paris came well before the Trump administration’s intensive deliberations over staying in or vacating the climate agreement. In May, combing media sources for clues to the Trump decision, we found this in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review: “Why India and Pakistan Are Renewing Their Love Affair with Coal.”
Days earlier, Earth’s Future, a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), published a study noting India’s plan for nearly 370 new coal-fired power plants—178 gigawatts under planning—an amount the AGU said would make India meeting its Paris commitment to carbon dioxide reduction “nearly impossible.”
India’s rapid expansion of generation capacity is unsurprising; some 300 million of its people still live without electricity. Meanwhile, Technology Review reports, an infrastructure investment project with China calls for Pakistan to add a dozen new coal plants, equaling—a separate Reuters report said—three-fourths of Pakistan’s planned new capacity.
MIT quoted a Pakistani government minister saying his nation “must” use its coal reserves, “adequate to meet the country’s energy needs for several decades, for powering the country’s economic wheel, creating new jobs, and fighting spiking unemployment and poverty.”
Running in Place
An April feature [“Uncharted Waters”] in this magazine briefly noted CO2 emissions from energy production staying flat in 2016 for a third consecutive year, amid 3-percent global economic growth.
The report, from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, credited U.S. and Chinese emission reductions for preventing a worldwide increase while European emissions remained stable and most of the rest of the world’s emissions grew. Perhaps underappreciated is the extent to which national priorities were set before, and unaltered by, the Paris summit.
For instance, what’s implied by the absence of penalties for signing the agreement but ignoring the resulting commitment? The near-200 signatory nations obviously understand there’s no enforcement mechanism; indeed, even those expecting to keep their commitments understand that if there was an enforcement mechanism there would be no Paris agreement.
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry, who shepherded the agreement to approval, addressed the Paris summit December 9, 2015 saying, “If all the industrialized nations went down to zero emissions, it wouldn’t be enough,” and adding that more than 65 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions originate in the developing world.
What did Kerry mean by “enough?” Back to MIT: Months before the summit, in their 2015 Energy and Climate Outlook, MIT scholars calculated the effect of the Paris agreement’s emission reductions. They wrote that the cuts awaiting achievement “have lowered our estimate of future warming by about 0.2 degrees Celsius [0.36 Fahrenheit]” at the end of this century.
Don’t Bet Against Inertia
Debating whether the United States should be “in” or “out” makes headlines, but the net effect may be more reliably foretold by the rarity, through decades of climate wrangling, of nations taking paths they weren’t already following.
Developing countries increase emissions because keeping their populations in the dark is figuratively and literally inconceivable. A fully industrialized Germany sees its emissions grow as it massively adds renewables because they require near-equivalent backup generation. The IEA says U.S. emissions, already trending downward, are at their lowest since 1992. More than anything done or undone by any administration, inexpensive natural gas says that will continue.
Loopholes exist for a reason. It may turn out that the Paris climate agreement’s sole undeniable effect is the additional carbon dioxide emitted back in 2015 from the Champagne uncorked to celebrate its signing.