National Security & Defense

The Climate Conference and ‘Carbon Imperialism’

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama in Paris. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)
Rich and poor nations have opposite agendas when it comes to the use of coal.

The Paris climate talks had failed before they even started. That’s the apparent view of Ban Ki-moon, who, over the weekend just before the climate-change conference was to start, declared that pledges made by governments around the world to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions are “not enough.” To be sure, the U.N. secretary-general didn’t say the talks will be a failure, but he did tell The Associated Press that “We have to do much more and faster to be able to contain the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.”

In advance of the Paris conference, more than 180 countries submitted action plans that detail their projected emission cuts. (For an explanation of how meaningless those plans are, see this excellent piece by my colleague Oren Cass.) But Moon told the AP that there will have to be a “review session” before 2020 so that, in theory, all those countries will agree to even lower targets.

In short, Moon has made it clear that the Paris talks will end just as the other U.N. climate conferences have ended: by kicking the climate can down the road. All the previous conferences, in places such as Copenhagen, Bonn, Durbin, and Cancún, have concluded with promises that soon — real soon, and no kidding this time — all the countries of the world will agree to make drastic cuts in their carbon dioxide emissions

The key sticking point leading to all that can-kicking can be understood by looking at one fuel — coal — and one country — India.

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Back in July 2009, just weeks before the start of the climate conference in Copenhagen, Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian academic who chaired the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, asked reporters to understand the situation in his home country: “Can you imagine 400 million people who do not have a light bulb in their homes?” He then made clear where India was headed: “You cannot, in a democracy, ignore some of these realities and, as it happens, with the resources of coal that India has, we really don’t have any choice but to use coal.”

Today, six years after that statement by Pachauri — who, by the way, resigned in disgrace from the IPCC earlier this year amid charges of sexual harassment — the situation in India and other developing countries has not changed in any substantive way.

#share#Coal continues to be the fastest-growing form of energy globally, and that growth has resulted in major increases in carbon dioxide emissions. In 1973, coal combustion accounted for 35 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. By 2012, according to the International Energy Agency, that figure had increased to 44 percent. Indeed, while we are inundated with stories about the growth in renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, coal’s share of the global electricity market is not shrinking, it’s growing; it now stands at about 40 percent.

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Furthermore, coal isn’t going away. New coal-fired power plants expected to produce about 276 gigawatts of electricity are currently under construction around the world. That estimate doesn’t come from coal promoters; instead, it’s from two anti-coal groups: the Sierra Club and Coal Swarm. To put that 276 gigawatts of new capacity in perspective, it is roughly equal to the entire coal-fired capacity of the United States. Furthermore, this new capacity is only a harbinger of the additional coal-fired plants that are likely to be built over the next few decades, and, just as Pachauri said back in 2009, India is going to be building many of them.

In fact, India plans to double its coal production by 2020 as part of the country’s effort to increase its electricity production. Today, according to the World Bank, per-capita electricity use in India is just 744 kilowatt-hours per year. That’s less than a quarter of global average electricity consumption, which, again according to the World Bank, is about 3,000 kilowatt-hours per year. (In the U.S., consumption is about 13,000 kilowatt-hours per year.)

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And that leads us to the charge of “carbon imperialism,” which was leveled by Arvin Subramanian, the Indian government’s chief economic adviser, in a November 26 op-ed in the Financial Times. He wrote about the push in wealthy countries to quit using hydrocarbons and pointed to the vow made by the Obama administration and other countries’ governments “to vote against fossil fuel energy projects in developing countries when multilateral development banks are voting on them.” (I covered this issue in these pages back in 2013 and again in 2014.)

Subramanian pointed out that the U.S. produces “at least 35 percent more coal than India,” even though India’s population of 1.2 billion is roughly four times that of the U.S.

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He continued, writing that for India, “a country struggling to provide basic electricity to about 25 per cent of the population,” the effort to stop fossil-fuel projects in poor countries “smacks of a ‘carbon imperialism.’ And such imperialism on the part of advanced nations could spell disaster for India and other developing countries.”

#related#Subramanian concluded by saying that “rather than unconscionable calls to phase out India’s cheapest form of energy,” the wealthy countries should be working with India to develop cleaner forms of coal combustion. Indeed, Subramanian is merely echoing what Pachauri said in 2009: namely, that India isn’t as worried about climate change as it is about bringing more of its citizens out of the dark. And the fuel that is helping it do that is coal.

The bottom line here is abundantly obvious: If the government leaders meeting in Paris are going to be serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, then they will have to agree to fund the research, development, and deployment of energy technologies that can displace coal in the developing world. And that, in a word, means nuclear.

Will nuclear energy feature prominently in Paris? I wouldn’t count on it. But if the countries of the world agree to ramp up research and development of nuclear reactors that are safer and cheaper than today’s reactors, then perhaps the meeting won’t be a failure after all.


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