It has been a curious experience to watch the news about the “largest climate march in history” from Japan. There weren’t any marches here in Tokyo. Indeed, 350.org, the group that was a lead organizer of the march in New York City, doesn’t even appear to have a presence in Japan.
The energy-related headlines in the Asian newspapers over the past week or so haven’t been about climate change or the march in New York City. They have largely been about nuclear and coal. And therein lies the mismatch between the rhetoric of the marchers and organizers, and the hard realities of the global energy market.
Sure, some 300,000 people showed up in Manhattan to express their desire for action on carbon dioxide emissions. But if the marchers and the organizers behind the march are serious about addressing climate change, then they should be holding a march against coal use. Instead, according to a key observation on the march made by Ed Crooks, a reporter for the Financial Times, the marchers were overwhelmingly demonstrating against, wait for it . . . natural gas.
In a Twitter message, Crooks wrote, “Anti-fracking signs here outnumber anti-coal signs by more than 10:1.” In another Twitter message, Crooks noted that anti-fracking signs were “by far the most popular” and that there were “possibly even more” signs about hydraulic fracturing than there were about climate.
If climate activists were serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions (as well as traditional air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide), they should be embracing natural gas instead of attacking it. Indeed, the U.S. is leading the world in reducing its carbon dioxide emissions thanks to increased use of natural gas, which is displacing coal in the electricity-generation sector.
Climate-change activists such as Bill McKibben love to point to Germany as an example the rest of the world should be following. Over the past decade or so, German consumers have subsidized renewable-energy programs at a cost of about $134 billion. And while it’s true that Germany is now producing more solar energy than any other country, it’s also true that the U.S. has achieved far greater emissions reductions, in absolute terms, than has Germany.
Since 2003, according to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, the U.S. has cut its carbon dioxide emissions by over 400 million tons. Germany’s reductions over that same period have totaled about 67 million tons. Thus, over the past decade or so, the U.S. has cut its emissions by more than six times what Germany has achieved, and it has done so without federal mandates for renewable energy, and it has done so at far lower cost for consumers.
Of course, while holding up Germany as an example to be copied, climate activists are ignoring another inconvenient truth: German utilities are building more coal-fired power plants. On September 22, the day after the big march in New York, Julie Mengewein of Bloomberg reported that last year, coal-fired electricity provided 45 percent of all the power used in Germany, the highest level since 2007.
Indeed, while the marchers in New York eagerly demonize natural gas, they are ignoring the extraordinary growth in global coal use. Coal is the fastest-growing form of energy, and it has been since 1973. Coal combustion now accounts for about 44 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and coal-fired generators provide about 40 percent of all global electricity.
Before I came to Japan, I spent two weeks in Australia. While there, I had several conversations about the Asian energy market with Chris Grieg, who heads the University of Queensland Energy Initiative in Brisbane. Grieg has spent 25 years in the energy sector and holds a doctorate in chemical engineering. “There’s one thing that Asian countries like more than coal,” he said, “and that’s cheap coal.”
Indeed, countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and China are building lots of new coal-fired power plants. In Japan, the home of the much-ballyhooed Kyoto Protocol, coal use has jumped more than 9 percent since 2011, when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was disabled by an earthquake and tsunami. And more coal-fired plants will be built here in Japan. In April, an official in the Japanese government, Akira Yasui of the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry, told Bloomberg that it is “crucial to have diverse energy sources” for Japan, which imports nearly all its energy. “Our basic stance,” he said, “is to use coal while caring for the environment as much as possible. Coal is economical and stable in supply.”
So why are the marchers in New York protesting against natural gas and not coal? The answer is simple: It fits the narrative that’s continually promoted by McKibben, Naomi Klein, and other high-profile environmentalists. In their view, the main reason that carbon dioxide emissions are rising and that there hasn’t been any concerted global effort to constrain those emissions is that a secret cabal of evil businessmen is preventing such action.
In an interview published in Newsday after the march, McKibben touted the event as “the largest political gathering about anything in quite some time.” When asked what frustrated him most about the lack of political action on carbon dioxide emissions, he replied that it’s “sad to see this kind of destruction solely to maintain the profit margins of the oil majors and the coal barons for a few more years.”
To believe such a narrative is to believe in a cabal so powerful that it controls events in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, a country where the average citizen consumes about 240 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. For comparison, the average American consumes over 12,000 kilowatt-hours per year, 50 times as much. That electricity use translates directly into wealth. Per-capita GDP in the U.S. is about $52,800, roughly 25 times the level in Bangladesh, where that figure is $2,100.
On Monday, just a few hours after Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, and other climate activists finished trudging through the streets of Manhattan, officials in Dhaka signed a memorandum of understanding with Malaysian officials to build a new 1,300-megawatt electricity-generation plant in Bangladesh. It will burn coal. The fuel probably will be shipped to Bangladesh from mines in Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, or Mozambique.
The punch line here is obvious: Spouting rhetoric about climate change is easy. Bashing natural gas and hydraulic fracturing while living in one of the world’s wealthiest countries is even easier. The hard reality of bringing electric lights, refrigeration, and modern industry to Bangladesh? Well, that’s just a little more complicated.
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong, was published in May by PublicAffairs.