The global climate change jamboree has descended upon Paris this week, just over a fortnight after the terrorist attacks that left 130 dead and 386 injured. Newspapers are filled with breathless reportage declaring that the conference will “decide on the very future of the planet”.
Not to be subdued, climate protesters heralded the event with violent riots involving people in clown faces and masks. The Paris Climate Conference, more formally known as the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), will focus on the latest attempt to reverse the dramatic failure, at Copenhagen in 2009, to agree some kind of successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2020. What they have in mind this time is a non-binding agreement among member countries to try to meet a set of self-established emissions targets.
If that sounds like weak tea, it is, but 40,000 people will participate in the effort, and that kind of juggernaut is hard to stop. Many of them are bureaucrats working for governments who control their citizens by means of illegal mass surveillance, and who would love any excuse to impose more controls, regulations and taxes on their people. Others live it up on research grants paid by those very same governments – grants that oddly, do not have to be declared as financial interests that could raise conflicts of interest. Still others are paid lobbyists for companies that stand to benefit from the adoption of so-called green technologies, or corporate employees paid to help companies meet regulatory environmental rules. So, what, if anything, will this eco-party deliver?
Let’s leave aside the many reasons to believe that climate change is not an urgent crisis, and that it has been exaggerated by governments, scientists and environmental activists. No matter what you believe, the Paris Conference will achieve little to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change, even if an agreement is reached. The proposed agreement is based on the non-binding commitments of participating countries – known in typically confusing UN acronym-speak as INDCs, for “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”. Basically, they are like New Year’s resolutions. “This year, I’ll eat healthier and drink less. Maybe.”
If an agreement is reached in Paris, and countries stick to these targets until 2100, the difference it would make to climate is a measly 0.2°C. This is according to the Energy and Climate Outlook 2015 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. A paper in the journal Global Policy by Bjørn Lomborg makes it 0.17°C, and it adds that the impact of any changes will be undetectable for many decades. Lomborg also estimated the costs to the global economy. Extrapolating from models involving the US, EU, China and Mexico, he arrives at some $1 trillion per year, every year, if everything is done efficiently. If not – and history suggests green subsidy boondoggles are far from efficient – the total cost could double.
Now, is a 0.2°C reduction in global temperatures by 2100 really worth $85 trillion, which is more than the entire global economy is worth today? That a putative successor agreement to Kyoto would achieve so little should not come as a surprise. While the Kyoto Treaty itself was nominally hailed as a success, having reduced emissions among member countries by 16%, pretty much all of that reduction was an effect of catastrophic industrial collapse in Eastern Europe, and later, the global economic crisis of 2008. And even despite all this economic misery, global emissions have risen by 50% since 1990.
So Kyoto had a very limited impact on climate change, if any at all. Its carbon trading scheme, which might have been a useful concept in that it lets markets determine where emissions can most efficiently be reduced, has essentially collapsed. Kyoto created too much bureaucracy, contained too many loopholes, and countries were never sanctioned for failing to meet their targets. Hoping that a new non-binding agreement costing as much as $1 trillion a year is going to achieve anything substantial is simply crazy. But wait, I hear you say. The media all said that an agreement at the Paris Climate Conference would limit global warming to 2.7°C by 2100, instead of the 4.5°C that is expected under a business-as-usual scenario. That is a reduction of almost 2°C, an order of magnitude more than the 0.2°C change claimed by the MIT report and Lomborg’s paper. Surely that’s worth a global economy or two?
I’m afraid I have some bad news to break. The media – which is not averse to scaring you with photoshopped photographs on the front page – has not been checking the facts. And the UN is lying to reporters. They all got their information from Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC: “The INDCs have the capability of limiting the forecast temperature rise to around 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, by no means enough but a lot lower than the estimated four, five, or more degrees of warming projected by many prior to the INDCs.”
But this isn’t true. This assumes not only that the existing voluntary country commitments are met and sustained until the year 2100, but that further, legally binding agreements for far more aggressive emissions cuts are concluded in the future. That, frankly, is wishful thinking, given that public support for a tough climate deal has declined sharply in the last few years. It is also deliberately misleading about what the Paris Conference itself might achieve. The truth is that it will achieve almost nothing at all. Many of the commitments by the most important polluters, large developing countries, are little more than hand waving.
China has said its emissions will peak by 2030. Maybe they will, as a side-effect of its efforts to curb air pollution, and maybe they will not. Either way, there’s nothing legally binding in this set of promises. India has made a pledge to reduce its “emissions intensity”. This should not be confused with a promise to cut emissions. India expects to more than triple its energy use by 2030, and it certainly has no intention of reducing emissions. It just expects that future energy plants will produce lower emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) created than existing plants. This is a trivial truism, so it’s an easy commitment to make.
South Africa has made similarly misleading commitments, saying that they will cut carbon emissions to 34% of a “business-as-usual” scenario by 2020, and 42% by 2025. (That last number has already been raised by 2% since COP17 in Durban in 2011). Eskom’s failures could certainly contribute to the unfortunate events that would lead South Africa to meet these targets, but, as the Climate Action Tracker illustrates, such a promise is entirely inadequate, since it represents an increasing trend, exceeding 1990 levels by 110% in 2020 and 141% in 2025.
Russia said it would reduce carbon emissions by between 25% and 30% from 1990 levels, by 2030. But this is exactly what it was already legally bound to achieve by 2020, under Kyoto. Better yet, its emissions are below 1990 levels already. The reason? Economic disaster is great for the environment, and emission levels were halved by the catastrophic industrial collapse of the Soviet Union. They hit a low about 15 years ago. Since then, Russia’s emissions have been rising again, and this new pledge to “cut carbon emissions” actually permits it to continue increasing emissions.
This is strongly reminiscent of the reason Russia unexpectedly signed the Kyoto Protocol in the first place, back in 2004. It realised that its emissions had fallen by half since 1990, and that joining the Kyoto signatories would qualify it for carbon credits worth billions of dollars. Signing it implied no restrictions on energy use or emissions, but loads of free cash. This also hints at why, if action to prevent an imperceptible rise in temperatures is so expensive, developing countries are all over this Paris conference. They’re essentially being bribed. They’re only in it for the money. Developing nations want rich countries to contribute $100 billion per year to a fund that helps them adapt to the predicted – though not empirically confirmed – effects of climate change.
The existing Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to be worth $10 billion, only has $5.8 billion in signed funding agreements in the pot. The rest of it consists of promises. Rich countries are not so keen to hand over more cash, and want the private sector to pay. The private sector, given the shaky global economy, is not too keen on splashing out billions on idealistic grandstanding either. But despite the fact that a $100 billion per year climate adaptation deal is unlikely to be met, even if agreed upon, which developing country wouldn’t send a government delegation on a junket to the city of lights if some rich donors want to make multi-billion dollar pledges?
That COP21 in Paris is bound to be a failure, even if it succeeds, would be mildly troubling, if it was not for the bit that we left aside earlier. While climate is undoubtedly changing, and human activity undoubtedly has something to do with it, there is little reason to believe that it presents a grave crisis that requires drastic action. The empirical record simply does not match the predictions of computer models. That is not really surprising, since climate is the largest and most complex system we have ever tried to model. Even our best efforts rely greatly on estimates, assumptions and simplifications, and even our most powerful computers cannot do a perfect job of it.
Measured temperatures have for a considerable time been running at the low end of almost all model predictions. In fact, the global temperature trend has been nearly flat for almost two decades now, and recent attempts to make this so-called global warming pause vanish from the temperature record are questionable, at best. Endless predictions of calamity fail to come true. For example, contrary to Al Gore’s prediction at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 that the Arctic could be ice-free by summer 2014, the truth is that Arctic sea ice extent has rebounded from its lows. Global sea ice has been stable for decades, and doesn’t appear to be melting at all.
There is also no compelling evidence that extreme weather events like droughts, hurricanes or floods, are any more common or more severe than they have been in the past. Even the UN IPCC agrees. Whatever you conclude about the dangers of global warming, the COP21 Paris Climate Conference will achieve next to nothing, even if it succeeds, and even if achieving something were necessary and urgent. It is a deplorable waste of time and money. DM
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Old-fashioned crisps used to come with a packet of salt giving the purchaser the choice whether to salt their chips or not.