Why the Paris climate treaty is just a load of very expensive hot air
Bjorn Lomborg says the pledges in the costly agreement – to be signed this week – won’t significantly reduce global warming. What’s needed instead is a much faster transition from fossil fuels to cheap green energy sources
This Friday, world leaders and their entourages will disembark from carbon-spewing jets in New York to sign the world’s costliest climate change treaty. Lit by the flashbulbs of the world’s press and warmed by their sense of accomplishment, these politicians will pat each other on the back and declare a job well done.
The reality is that the so-called “Paris Treaty” is a hugely expensive way of doing very little.
The Paris Treaty talks a big game. It doesn’t just commit to capping the global temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The text goes even further and says that the world’s leaders commit to keeping the increase “well below 2 degrees C,” and will try to cap it at 1.5 degrees.
But this is just rhetoric. My own research, and the only peer-reviewed published assessment of the Paris agreement, used the UN’s favourite climate model to measure the impact of every nation fulfilling every major carbon-cutting promise in the treaty between now and 2030. I found that the total temperature reduction will be just 0.048 degrees by 2100. This is very similar to a finding by economists at MIT. China’s own contribution would be a minuscule 0.014 degrees reduction by 2100.
Even if these promises were extended for another 70 years, then all the promises would reduce temperature rises by 0.17 degrees by 2100 (with China contributing 0.048 degrees). It’s feeble.
We will hear claims this week from green campaigners that the treaty will do a lot more. But we should check their maths. These claims are based on a completely unrealistic scenario where governments do little now, then embark on incredibly ambitious climate change reduction policies after 2030.
History gives us extra reason for scepticism. The only global treaty to cut carbon – the Kyoto Protocol – famously failed when it was never ratified by the US, and eventually abandoned by Canada, Russia and Japan. Even before then, the treaty had holes in it so big that it was never destined to achieve anything.
By the United Nations’ own reckoning, the Paris treaty will only achieve less than 1 per cent of the emission cuts needed to meet target temperatures. Ninety-nine per cent of the problem is left for tomorrow’s leaders to deal with.
And what does it cost to make such feeble cuts? A great deal. This is likely to be the most expensive treaty in the history of the world.
It will be very expensive for China, which has promised to cut its carbon dioxide intensity (how much carbon dioxide it emits for every yuan) by 60-65 per cent by 2030.
Studies by the Asian Modelling Exercise, which used some of the best models in the world to estimate costs for Chinese climate policies, suggest that a 60 per cent cut could cost at least 1.29 trillion yuan (HK$1.55 trillion) annually in lost GDP growth.
Moreover, almost all models show that Chinese emissions will keep rising across the century unless there are strong policies designed to counteract this. Living up to its Paris climate promise of peaking carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 could easily cost China 2.59 trillion yuan or more in lost GDP.
If it were truly economically advantageous to quit our fossil fuel addiction right now, we wouldn’t need a treaty. Every right-thinking nation on the planet would stampede to cut carbon emissions.
China highlights the need to make a sensible transition. Over the past 30 years, it has lifted 680 million people out of poverty and this has mostly been powered by cheap, if polluting, coal. The International Energy Agency estimates that China gets just 0.02 per cent of its energy from electric solar cells and 0.3 per cent from wind.
Despite optimistic forecasts that see China’s total energy from solar and wind increasing more than 13-fold till 2040, China will still be getting just 3 per cent from solar and wind in 2040.
What is needed in China, and globally, to solve global warming is a massive increase in green energy technology research and development. This is by far the most effective and efficient way to find new breakthrough energy technologies that will be so cheap they can outcompete fossil fuels. If that happens, we will have fixed global warming, because everyone will switch to these cheaper, green energy sources.
The green energy innovation coalition – backed by philanthropist Bill Gates, business leaders and around 20 governments, including China – to double global green energy research and development, is an excellent initiative and is likely to achieve far more than the Paris Treaty.
I have argued for a huge increase in spending on green energy technology research and development for a decade.
But the Gates fund is just a start. A panel of Nobel laureates for the project Copenhagen Consensus on Climate found that we shouldn’t just double R&D but make a 10-fold increase, to reach at least US$100 billion per year.
Sadly, that will not be the focus of the treaty signed at the United Nations this Earth Day, which will do very little at a very high cost.
Dr Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre