Politics & Policy

On Chinese Coal, the U.N. vs. the New York Times

Coping with air pollution in Beijing, November 2014. (Kevin Frayer/Getty)

Good things come to those who wait, and the waiting is minimal when it comes to the endless stream of entertaining silliness offered by the U.N. climate-change bureaucracy. On November 3, Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, informed us that “China has taken an undisputed leadership” in terms of transforming its economy away from fossil fuels; indeed, she said, “the United States is actually playing catch-up to China.”

Figueres apparently neglected to read the New York Times, which reported that same day that “China, the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases from coal, has been burning up to 17 percent more coal a year than the government previously disclosed.”

Someone should inform Thomas Friedman of this sad development. (He is the New York Times columnist who argued in 2009 that “enlightened” autocracy can yield great advantages in terms of “mov[ing] a society forward.”) The 17 percent increase in China’s greenhouse-gas emissions, as reported in the paper of record on November 3, amounts to “almost a billion more tons a year,” not a microscopic correction given that annual global emissions are around 40 billion tons. But this error translates to a trivial temperature effect of about two one-hundredths of a degree in 2100 (using the Environmental Protection Agency’s own climate model), well below the standard deviation (“margin of error”) of eleven one-hundredths of a degree for the surface-temperature record.

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What really is important is that the upward correction in the Chinese emissions data means that the Chinese pseudo-commitment to halt the growth in their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is even more meaningless than the Obama administration has advertised. At what level will Chinese emissions peak in 2030? What will annual Chinese emissions be between, say, 2016 and 2030? How sharply will those emissions fall after 2030? What will the enforcement mechanism be? How will the data be verified? Ad infinitum.

And what will China demand as a quid pro quo? The Chinese “commitment” in advance of the international climate-change conference later this month makes explicit their demands:  

The 2015 agreement shall stipulate that developed countries shall, in accordance with the provisions of the Convention, provide new, additional, adequate, predictable and sustained financial support to developing countries for their enhanced actions. It shall provide for quantified financing targets and a roadmap to achieve them. The scale of financing should increase yearly starting from 100 billion U.S. dollars per year from 2020 which shall primarily come from public finance. The role of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) as an important operating entity of the financial mechanism of the Convention shall be strengthened. The GCF shall be under the authority of, guided by and accountable to the Conference of the Parties to the Convention.

Note that of the $100 billion GCF, $10.2 billion has been “announced” (that is promised officially or unofficially) — according to GCF’s “pledge tracker” — and $5.9 has been “signed” (that is, formally committed).

#share#A little background: The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that Figueres leads is the umbrella organization under which international efforts to reduce “carbon pollution” — a classic propaganda term, as carbon dioxide is neither “carbon” nor a “pollutant” — have been lumbering along for 27 years. Yes, 27 years of private jets, learned seminars, profound speeches, table-pounding outrage, moral preening, thunderous self-applause by officials and experts, upscale restaurants in exotic locales, and partying.

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The UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties (COP), the 21st (!) of which begins late this month, are the climate-industry summit meetings at which agreements are to be hammered out. This year’s confab will take place in Paris, as in France, as the international climate sophisticates would not dream of setting foot in those other places called Paris, whether in Ontario, Yukon, Kiribati, Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, or Virginia.

During this 27-year period, we have seen an increase in global temperatures of about 0.1 degrees, as measured by satellites for the lower atmosphere. (The 2015 temperature record is likely to be higher, largely because of a strong El Niño in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.) This slight increase comes despite atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations that have increased from 316 parts per million in 1959 to 353 ppm in 1989 to about 400 ppm now. Some clear evidence supports the hypothesis that these increases over time are likely to have temperature effects greater than zero; an example is an observed slight cooling in the lower stratosphere. But the larger reality is that the broader body of evidence on surface and tropospheric temperatures and such climate effects as cyclones has become increasingly ambiguous, and it’s clearly inconsistent with the predictions of the climate models.

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And so perhaps it is no accident, as Pravda used to put it, that Figueres has neglected to read the morning newspaper: Actual news is likely to be bad, and favorable reports are likely to be propaganda. And with respect to the latter, it will be no surprise if the headlines next month shout out “breakthroughs” and “historic agreements” and the like at the conclusion of COP-21. The climate industry generally and President Obama in particular cannot afford another such debacle as that of COP-15 in Copenhagen, the result of which was a thunderous . . . nothing.

#related#Claims of “breakthroughs” will be phony because the basic problem is straightforward: The developing world seeks to escape grinding poverty; restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions make energy more expensive and are thus impoverishing for the poor and wealthy alike; the developing economies will not agree to such restrictions, whether enforceable or not, without large subventions from the developed economies; and developed countries, having proven themselves unwilling in the past to expand their welfare policies to the Third World surely will refuse to do so as their climate policies make them poorer, even as they yield no effect at all on temperatures or climate phenomena.

The only step that any nation has to take right now to meet a commitment for future reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions relative to “business as usual” is to overestimate its future economic growth; when actual growth proves lower, so will emissions. And so COP-21 in reality will fail just as the previous 20 such summit meetings have failed, regardless of the headlines and the rhetoric. That central truth continues to haunt Figueres and her allies, inducing them to make arguments that are ever-more shrill and divorced from the facts. It is not only the Chinese economy from which emissions of hot air are a good deal higher than advertised.

— Benjamin Zycher is the John G. Searle scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Benjamin Zycher — Benjamin Zycher is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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