But maybe it doesn’t matter …
Hardly anyone seemed to notice at last weekend’s G20 meeting in Brisbane that the Climate Emperor had no clothes. Nor did I hear anyone remark on the obvious contradiction involved in issuing a communiqué which simultaneously committed participant nations, at least in principle, to taking effective action on climate change while also committing to achieving an additional 2.1% in world economic growth over the next few years. That sort of extra growth would make it more rather than less difficult to achieve any useful global carbon emissions reduction target in the near future.
Some commentators (although not many in the left-leaning sectors of the Australian media) did at least note that Friday’s climate change agreement between the United States and China had some elements of a “smoke and mirrors” or “pea and thimble” trick. China isn’t agreeing to cap its carbon emissions for another 16 years and in that time aims at explosive economic growth which will continue to spew more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, even if they do gradually move from building coal-fired power stations to less polluting energy sources. By that stage there is a high probability that the world will have already passed a tipping point where catastrophic atmospheric temperature increases will be unavoidable.
As for America, Barack Obama is the lamest of lame-duck Presidents since the implacably carbon-denialist Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress only a couple of weeks ago. Although there are some things that Obama can do to reduce American carbon emissions using his executive authority as President, he certainly won’t be able with executive power alone to implement the strong measures needed to achieve the large emission reductions to which he purported to agree last Friday. Legislation will be essential and neither he nor a future Democrat President like Hillary Clinton has any chance of getting it enacted with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. Moreover Obama’s agreement with China won’t even become binding on the United States unless it is ratified by the Senate, and that just isn’t going to happen.
Then there is Europe. Despite pious posturing, the European Union is still showing no convincing sign of tweaking its emissions trading scheme to achieve a carbon price high enough to have a significant effect on the capital investment decisions of major carbon-emitting industries. According to a relatively recent Guardian article, the EU carbon price currently stands at €4.13, far below the €30 analysts say is needed to be effective in cutting carbon.
It all suggests that my Troppo colleague Paul Frijters (see links list at the bottom of this post) is correct in suggesting that there is a range of perverse economic incentives (including the free-rider effect) which together mean that there is Buckley’s chance of achieving a workable international agreement for meaningful carbon emissions reductions in the foreseeable future.
However, it is at least conceivable that Paul is being unduly pessimistic and that there are already changes occurring in the marketplace that will make any formal agreement between nation states unnecessary. Prices for solar and wind-powered energy technologies have been falling quite dramatically over the last few years, and many suggest that they will be at least competitive with fossil fuel alternatives by around 2020. That could mean that the EU carbon price, derisory as it currently seems, might actually end up being enough to influence investment decisions in the right direction even without any regulatory adjustment.
Moreover, the prices of lithium-ion and similar new generation battery/energy storage technologies are also coming down fast. It was recently reported that Elon Musk, the billionaire manufacturer of Tesla motor vehicles, is building the world’s largest production facility for such batteries somewhere in the United States, although I suspect it has more to do with producing batteries for electric vehicles than large-scale backup energy storage facilities for a national or regional power grid. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that we may soon be in a position where the total price for large-scale solar and wind-powered generation facilities will be more than competitive with fossil fuel sources, even including the cost of backup power storage necessary to provide baseload capacity for the relatively small number of occasions each year when peak load is reached at times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
When or if that situation is achieved, the market will begin making investment decisions in favour of clean renewable energy technologies. The days of coal and gas as major energy sources will be over. Even without affordable large-scale energy storage capabilities, moving to arrangements where fossil fuel power stations are only used as a peak load backup when solar and wind sources aren’t enough, would probably in itself achieve something close to the total reductions in carbon emissions necessary to avoid catastrophic temperature increase. We may actually be getting quite close to the point where that is achievable now. Perhaps it is only the increasingly shrill and desperate lobbying of the still-powerful fossil fuel industry and its shills like Tony Abbott that is inhibiting it. In any event, I suspect that some such scenario is a much more realistic possibility than the prospect of ever achieving workable real-world international agreements, as opposed to the meaningless pious posturing and bulldust we witnessed over the weekend at the G20.
But of course I might be wrong. I’m not an expert on international politics let alone energy technologies or climate science, just a deeply interested observer. But who wouldn’t be, given that the stakes are our children’s and our planet’s future?
Some Paul Frijters climate change article
- The role of collateral in global environmental action
- Was Vaclav Klaus right in fearing the climate alarmists?
- Flannery and engineering solutions to climate change
- How far are we in the science of geo-engineering?
- Carbon tax policies on both sides ignore the truth: it’s not going to help (Symbolic Climate Policies, part I)
- Symbolic Climate Policies, part II: why exempt coal exports?
- Symbolic Climate Policies, part III: how to produce climate public goods?
- Climate Change: how can we adapt?
- Gentlemen’s wagers on carbon emission policies
- Bluntly explaining Climate Change policies to the Maldives
- An update on geo-engineering and solar power prices