Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Kyoto and energy

The Kyoto Treaty is dead in the water:

Even those who support radical cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions are realizing that the Kyoto Protocol is a failed instrument for achieving their goals. "The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge," says British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
And Britain has been an aberration among signatories--only five of the 156 countries who jumped on board the Kyoto have decreased emissions. Of these, only Great Britain and Germany have done so impressively:

Of the industrialised nations, only Britain seems to be having little trouble meeting its commitments, having even surpassed its target of 12.5 pct by cutting emissions 13 pct. Germany also reduced its emissions impressively, by 18.2 pct, but was short of its target of 21 pct, while France (1.9 pct), Luxembourg (16 pct) and Sweden (2.3 pct) also cut emissions.

One step forward doesn't neutralize two steps backwards, unfortunately:

Eleven have reported increases since 1990, with huge rises seen in Spain (41.7 pct), Portugal (36.7 pct), Greece (25.8 pct), Ireland (25.6 pct), Finland (21.5 pct) and Austria (16.5 pct).
The countries that have cut emissions, not surprisingly, are stuck in the doldrums of economic malaise. Britain has recently slashed its GDP growth rate to a paltry 1.75% while Germany turns in a similarly unstellar performance of 1.7%. France suffers from double-digit unemployment, among other things.

This marginally effective push to reduce emissions by many moral posturing industrialized nations (US and Australia are notably absent) reminds me of a sequence in Joseph Heller's Cath-22. Yossarian is tending to another soldier's arm wound taken from enemy fire, feverishly wrapping it up to stop the bleeding. In his momentary relief from getting the relatively minor injury to the arm taken care of, Yossarian realizes the guy's abdomen has been obliterated and his guts are literally spilling out onto the floor. China and India are collectively that abdomen:

By 2012, the plants in three key countries - China [1.926 billion], India [486 million], and the United States [275 million] - are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to a Monitor analysis of power-plant construction data. In contrast, Kyoto countries by that year are supposed to have cut their CO2 emissions by some 483 million tons.
In the ideal world where the Kyoto nations met their obligations, we could expect to see six times that amount added from just three other countries. The entire Kyoto protocols, if they were carried out to term would not even offset the growth of India. Of course, almost all the countries that are a party to Kyoto are failing dismally at even halting emissions growth, let alone decreasing them. And the explosion in China is the real story. Because oil is expensive and unstable, the PRC is turning to other methods of feeding its insatiable need for energy, namely coal:

"Environmental optimists were assuming the world was going to switch to gas, but when you're short of gas you use your own coal," says Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at the University of Dundee, in Scotland. "What you're seeing with China and the others is the cheapness and security of coal just overwhelming the desire to be clean."

It's unfair to expect China to halt emissions growth, given that the country's PPP of $5,600 is among the world's lowest outside of Africa, northern South and Central America, and the crapistans. Being told to put the brakes on economic efficiency by countries with a standard of living ten times higher than their own is understandably scoffed at by the Chinese, who are building a new power plant every ten days or so.

Trying to regulate away greenhouse emissions is a pipe dream. Until alternative energy sources (check out Randall Parker's Futurepundit for insightful news about and analysis of them) become economically viable, they are going to be resisted because of their obvious deleterious effect on growth. Governments should be focusing on developing, directly and through tax incentives, these alternative sources so that industry will be encouraged rather than coerced into using them.

Tony Blair is right in pointing out that so long as lower emissions are cost-ineffective, mandating them will remain an exercise in futility. Companies will simply move to nations with more lax enforcement, further injuring the highly regulated nations and rewarding those with liberal allowances for emissions. By pouring money into research, perhaps something similar to the Manhattan Project but this time for energy production, governments and environmental groups can work to obsolesce fossil fuels like oil and coal.

Projects like FutureGen can help make fossil production much cleaner. This is the only way that emissions are going to be substantively cut. In addition, it would enhance US national security and be economically beneficial. Thumping morally superior chests and clamoring for draconian government anti-business mandates will solve nothing and only hurt those nations that buy into it.

Nuclear is currently the most feasible--it's cheap, removes dependency on foreign countries, and doesn't spit out any emissions. Although it is far off, nuclear fusion could plausibly provide an almost infinite amount of energy from a single source. Congress, with Bush's backing, has thankfully made some push to build more nuclear power plants in the US. Photovoltaics (solar), batteries, biodiesel, wind, and hydro are in play as well, although none of them are very competitive against fossil fuels at this juncture.


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