One of the first items of business for the Trump administration will be to decide what to do with the Paris Agreement. In September, the Obama administration deposited with the United Nations general secretary an instrument accepting the Paris climate treaty without first asking the Senate for its advice and consent. As matters stand, the United States is now bound to the Obama administration’s target of reducing economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The domestic counterpart of the Paris Agreement is the EPA’s Clean Power Plan — also crafted to avoid congressional approval — which is how the Obama administration intends for the U.S. to achieve its Paris obligations.
During the presidential election, Donald Trump denounced one-sided trade deals for destroying American jobs. The Paris Agreement is the mother and father of one-sided deals. It requires the United States to keep cutting its emissions in perpetuity irrespective of what anyone else does. Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (which the Senate would have rejected had Bill Clinton sent it to the Senate), there are no escape hatches. It forces the U.S. to play by its own rules while letting everyone else play by their own. Short of repudiating the whole treaty, once on the escalator, there’s no way off.
Because the process develops a logic of its own, it ends up producing ridiculous positions that the nations of the world nonetheless sign on to. Article 2 of the Paris Agreement sets a new goal of limiting temperature increases to only 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It had been cooked up by the Alliance of Small Island States. Along with polar bears, the small island states are featured as the prime victims in the climate-change morality tale: innocents on remote islands condemned to be swept away in a flood of biblical significance, to pay for the climate sins of the rich.
It is a PR narrative made for media impact. In the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, the Maldives cabinet held an underwater meeting to dramatize the threat of global warming. “How can you ask my country to go extinct?” Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed exclaimed when the Chinese argued that the 1.5-degree limit should be removed from the text. Trouble was, it is complete bunkum.
Having decided on the 1.5-degree goal, the politicians wanted the gloss of scientific respectability. So last year’s Paris Climate Conference invited the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to “provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and related greenhouse gas emission pathways.” What politicians command, scientists will deliver — at the cost of the corruption of science. As a 2015 “expert dialogue” conducted by the U.N. climate-change subsidiary body on scientific and technological advice noted, the scientific literature on the risks and impacts of 1.5-degree warming was “limited.” Applying the more stringent target was virtually cost-free, the U.N. experts claimed, as it would “only marginally delay, but not sacrifice, economic growth,” an opinion that shows the general worthlessness of U.N. climate experts.
Hitting the target on the basis of bog-standard IPCC science depends on achieving large negative emissions by the middle of this century. In September, at a conference in Oxford on the 1.5-degree target, energy expert and former U.K.-government adviser Michael Grubb of University College London suggested that politicians would need to take extraordinary measures to ensure the uptake of negative-emission technologies. Should global society be put on a war footing? Professor Grubb asked. It was an analogy worth exploring, responded Achim Steiner, who headed the United Nations Environment Programme for a decade until June of this year.
Actually, the 1.5-degree target is highly problematic for the UN climate-change process. If technology ever made it economic to pull carbon dioxide directly from the air, then the rationale for cutting emissions would vastly diminish. But without negative emissions, the only way the target will be hit is if the climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide (the temperature increase from doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere) is low, which observations tend to suggest is the case. Either way, the U.N. just killed off the justification for draconian emissions cuts.
Money is at the heart of the U.N. climate-change process. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, Hillary Clinton promised $100 billion of annual climate aid beginning in 2020. To protect her 2016 election prospects, last year in Paris, John Kerry got the commitment of $100 billion a year removed from the treaty text and relegated to a conference decision, and he got the start date pushed to 2025. With the presidential election out of the way, last month’s Marrakech conference brought the start year back to 2020.
Money also distorts what the world is being told about global trends in energy policy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has become the energy equivalent of the IPCC. The IEA’s statistics are widely regarded as authoritative. But its key messages for policymakers are that of a green campaigning organization. Deep in its World Energy Outlook 2016, the IEA projects in its “New Policies Scenario” that over the next 35 years, the amount of electricity the Chinese will produce from coal will increase by 4.3 percent but that the amount of coal they will use to generate that electricity will fall by 4.6 percent.
Money also distorts what the world is being told about global trends in energy policy.
How can this be? China, along with Japan and South Korea, is leading the world in adopting the latest super-critical and ultra-super-critical low-emission-coal technology. It operates at much higher temperatures and pressures, and the efficiency of turning coal into electricity is increased by up to 30 percent, enabling new-technology power stations to generate more electricity while emitting less CO2 and pollutants such as particulates, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. The conundrum of how a coal-based economy such as China’s expects to see its emissions peak in 2030 can thus be explained. While President Obama’s EPA wants to force the U.S. to turn its back on coal, China is harnessing technology to make its coal-fired power stations more efficient and, at the same time, improve local air quality.
Not that this forms part of the IEA’s key messages. Under Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director and, before that, its chief economist, the IEA has become a cheerleader for renewables. Birol set out his stall in a September 2015 interview with Politico shortly after stepping up to his new role:
The silver-haired Turk repeatedly shifts the conversation to his plans to turn the Paris-based organization that was originally founded to help the developed world combat OPEC’s oil-market power into “an international hub on clean energy.”
“We are one of the biggest promoters of renewable energies,” he said in the interview.
Indeed, Birol has doubled up his role as vocal advocate of renewables through his appointment to the Patronage Committee of myclimate, a Swiss-based carbon-offset company.
If the West goes down the path advocated by Birol and the IEA, it risks a repeat of what happened to its nuclear industry. After the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident, hardly any new nuclear power stations were built. Whereas the West’s ability to design and build nuclear power stations has atrophied, Vladimir Putin’s Rosatom currently boasts $100 billion in export orders. This is how the West lets its industries of the future become the future of the East.Candidate Trump blamed incompetent negotiators for landing America with one-sided trade deals. Incompetence does not explain the Paris Agreement. Obama-administration climate negotiators did not put American interests first. The failure of the Kyoto Protocol led them to a structurally worse solution. They replaced reciprocated multilateralism with collective unilateralism under which those that offered the most lose the most. Supporters of the Paris Agreement will argue that American withdrawal would put the world’s climate at risk. The reality is that Paris agreement — and its Siamese twin, the Clean Power Plan — risk America’s industrial future. If you want to know why, look at what China is actually doing.
— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History.