Two Industries Poised to Wipe Out Carbon Emissions Savings of Entire Nations
Data: LSE | *Metric tonnes CO2 equivalent (click to enlarge). Note Canada's emissions in 1990, the Kyoto benchmark year, and in 2005, Obama's benchmark year.
by Gaius Publius
The push to get nations to commit to carbon emissions savings is much in the news lately, so I'd like to take a moment to make two points. The first is in the headline to this piece. While the U.N. FCCC (Framework Convention on Climate Change, their treaty-making body) is working to get firm and sufficiently large commitments from nations to reduce their carbon emissions, nations are only part of the problem. The other is industries that operate internationally.
The second point, below, involves the choice of "benchmark year" for carbon reductions agreements — in this pledge, for example, "to reduce our emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025," something Obama announced recently as the U.S. contribution to the FCCC national target request.
Why 2005, and not, say, 1990, the benchmark year of the Kyoto agreement? Read on.
Two Emissions-Rich Industries That Individual Nations Can't Reign In
Independent of the pledges of the various nations — which are proving to be entirely inadequate to meeting even the modest goals of the U.N. — pledges by nations aren't the entire solution. In fact, the pledges by a number of nations would be entirely wiped out by the emissions of two international industries. These are international shipping and international air travel.
Cassie Werber writing at Quartz:
These industries are going to cancel out entire countries’ carbon savingsPonder that chart again. As Canada's emissions have fallen about 15% below the 1990 benchmark and about 30% below its peak in 2005, on the same scale the emissions of global shipping and global aviation have almost quadrupled. Certainly, even if a solution were found for completely eliminating carbon emissions from a nation's energy use — and there is one here, for example — eliminating emissions from shipping and aviation will be a challenge.
Later this month, representatives from some of the world’s biggest polluting countries will gather in Paris to negotiate a collective agreement to limit global warming to fewer than two degrees celsius below pre-industrial levels.
It’s a massive task, especially since global average temperatures are likely to have risen by one degree from those levels—halfway to the crucial point of no return—by the end of this year.
But as individual countries commit to cuts, the runaway emissions of industries that operate across borders is becoming more apparent. In 1990, the world’s entire maritime industry emitted less than half the carbon of Canada. Aviation emitted even less. But by 2030, both these industries will outstrip Canada and other large economies by millions of tons of carbon every year.
The forecasts by the London School of Economics (pdf) include several scenarios for countries’ emissions in 2020 and 2030. We’ve compared them [in the chart above] with Canada’s national emissions because the country’s commitment to cut its pollution by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 isn’t subject to as many variables as other countries’ (like India, which bases its commitment on how fast its economy grows).
Consider — a nation could conceivable eliminate all emissions from transportation, save those two, fairly easily. Simply convert all power generation, all of it, from anything carbon-related to 100% renewables, then require that only non-carbon-using vehicles, electric cars and buses, for example, be used.
Still, that doesn't solve the "boats and planes" problem? What does solve it? Sadly, not something good, but something that is revealed by examining the benchmark year issue.
Why the "Benchmark Year" Matters & What It Reveals
Briefly, if you're in the business of looking better than you are, or making your performance look as good as possible, what you compare yourself to is critical. Consider Obama's pledge to, again, "reduce our emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025." Here's a chart of U.S. carbon emissions from energy generation:
U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions since 1992 (source).
Now consider that if Obama had said in 2012, "I pledge to reduce energy-related emissions in the U.S. by 10% from 2005 levels" — he'd be there on the day he made the statement. When Obama announced at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks that he would "reduce greenhouse gas emissions about 17% below 2005 levels by 2020," he knew that he had 10% of that reduction already in his pocket and 12 years to find the rest. Not much of a pledge.
You see this over and over with him. His much touted EPA plan, for example, "aims for a 30% national reduction of heat-trapping CO² emissions, from 2005 levels, by 2030"— about half of which had already been accomplished. Prior to Obama's pledges, the usual benchmark year was the one used in the Kyoto protocol, 1990. Look again at the two charts above and you'll see why that benchmark level was jettisoned.
Which leads to the question: What is the most effective method of reducing carbon emissions? You may not want to know.
Economic Crisis & Climate Change
The answer comes in a good 2009 piece in the New Yorker by David Owen. Note again that 2009 was the year of the Copenhagen climate conference. My emphasis below:
Economy vs. EnvironmentSad but true. Barring intervention in the economy — this kind of intervention, for example — the only "free market" method of reducing emissions is reverse prosperity — in other words, recession and depression. It's possible to have both zero energy-related emissions and national prosperity, but only if we manage it, World War II-style. If we don't manage it, we'll still get recession and depression, but chaotically and destructively.
Economic crisis and climate change
The week before last, twenty-five hundred delegates, from more than seventy countries, met in Copenhagen to prepare for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will take place there in December and will produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1992 and will expire in 2012. The speakers in Copenhagen were united by a sense of urgency—and for good reason, given the poor record of most participating countries in meeting their Kyoto targets for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.
So far, the most effective way for a Kyoto signatory to cut its carbon output has been to suffer a well-timed industrial implosion, as Russia did after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991. The Kyoto benchmark year is 1990, when the smokestacks of the Soviet military-industrial complex were still blackening the skies, so when Vladimir Putin ratified the protocol, in 2004, Russia was already certain to meet its goal for 2012. The countries with the best emissions-reduction records—Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic—were all parts of the Soviet empire and therefore look good for the same reason.
The United States didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but Canada did, and its experience is suggestive because its economy and per-capita oil consumption are similar to ours. Its Kyoto target is a six-per-cent reduction from 1990 levels. By 2006, however, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on climate initiatives, its greenhouse-gas output had increased to a hundred and twenty-two per cent of the goal, and the environment minister described the Kyoto target as “impossible.”
The explanation for Canada’s difficulties isn’t complicated: the world’s principal source of man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity. The recession makes that relationship easy to see: shuttered factories don’t spew carbon dioxide; the unemployed drive fewer miles and turn down their furnaces, air-conditioners, and swimming-pool heaters; struggling corporations and families cut back on air travel; even affluent people buy less throwaway junk. Gasoline consumption in the United States fell almost six per cent in 2008. That was the result not of a sudden greening of the American consciousness but of the rapid rise in the price of oil during the first half of the year, followed by the full efflorescence of the current economic mess.
The good news is, today at least we can still make choices, and some of them are excellent. Which means that it's not too late to sign this pledge. Nor is it too late to work for the only candidate who truly recognizes the threat that climate change represents, not just to our wealth, but to our lives (you can adjust the split any way you want at the link).