The Paris Catastrophe

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum PhotosNew Orleans, 2005

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement is dismaying for many reasons, not least because global agreements of any sort are increasingly difficult to broker, and that makes the landmark Paris climate deal agreed to in December 2015—the first truly international climate agreement with support from all the major world powers—all the more exceptional and precious. If the Paris agreement falters and we are forced to wait another decade for a new one, even removing atmospheric greenhouse gases, in all likelihood, will not be enough. Then, we would have no way of avoiding a dangerous and increasingly unstable future.

The Paris breakthrough came after twenty-one years of negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, and there were many moments when a successful outcome seemed hopeless. I chaired the Copenhagen Climate Council in the three years prior to the inconclusive Copenhagen climate meeting in 2009, and for months after I was plunged into deep despair. But as the Paris meeting neared, I regained a cautious optimism.

While watching Laurent Fabius, president of the Paris conference, guide the meeting through a process that stripped down a draft agreement from forty-nine pages to twenty-six—thereby removing many clauses that individual nations held dear—my heart was in my mouth. For hours Fabius sat in the chair, receiving abuse and objection from one speaker after the other. But he held his calm, and in the end the new draft was adopted, thus moving the meeting one vital step closer to success.

Even the most skilled chairperson would have failed at Paris, however, were it not for years of hard work and preparation by some participants. The efforts of Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, representing the US and China respectively and together the largest emitters of greenhouse gases globally, were crucial in this regard, as was the work of many in Europe, India, and the small island nations. Without their efforts, we might still be without an international agreement on climate change.

The fact that the agreement took so long to broker, however, has come at considerable cost. Had the world agreed on an approach to dealing with climate change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, we would have had a much easier path to decarbonizing the economy and avoiding 2⁰C of warming (which is widely accepted in political negotiations as the threshold of dangerous climate change). Had we reached an agreement in Copenhagen, we might still have been able to stay below 2⁰C simply by cutting emissions of greenhouse gases hard and fast. But the roughly 50 gigatons of CO2 equivalent emitted each year since then have made it all but impossible to avoid 2⁰C solely by cutting emissions. In order to meet the goals agreed to in Paris, we will need to develop ways of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at enormous scale. (The agreement aims at limiting warming to between 1.5 and 2⁰C. My recent book Atmosphere of Hope outlines the technologies and methods available to reduce CO2 at the gigaton scale.)

If Trump’s withdrawal is potentially disastrous for the planet, it is even more catastrophic for America. In most parts of the world, wind and solar power now offer the cheapest source of energy. In my own country of Australia, which has an abundance of cheap coal, 100 percent of new energy infrastructure is clean—mostly wind and solar—simply because it’s cheaper. Globally, the switch to clean energy is well entrenched, meaning that changes in our energy systems are inevitable. But a smooth transition requires consistent government policy, and the experience of Australia should act as a warning for the US as it switches energy policies under Trump.

In 2011 the Australian government introduced a carbon tax of $23 per ton, but two years later there was a change of government and the measure was repealed in July 2014. Over the years that the carbon tax was in effect, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions were reduced. But following the repeal, emissions increased sharply. Even worse, investors became reluctant to fund new energy infrastructure—either clean or polluting—because of uncertainty over future policy and the costs that might be incurred. Consequently, the energy system languished and in September 2016 an event occurred that revealed how vulnerable it had become. An enormous storm in South Australia flattened twenty-two electricity pylons, crippling three major electricity lines and blacking out most of the state. New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, narrowly avoided a similarly catastrophic blackout. Governments both state and federal are now scrambling to bring stability to an electricity grid weakened by years of underinvestment. Sadly, the cost of action is likely to be far higher than it would have been had consistent policy allowed ongoing, continuous investment in better electricity infrastructure.

Even more dangerous for the US, I think, is the opportunity offered to China by Trump vacating the field of climate action. China’s success in cornering the lion’s share of the global solar panel market should act as a warning to the US that success in manufacturing in the modern world requires more than hard work and entrepreneurship. It also requires clear, long-term investment signals from governments that understand the complexities of the energy transition and are willing to work with leading industries to achieve regulation that optimizes the chances of success. Without such government action, Denmark would never have been able to pioneer wind power technology, nor would China have succeeded in dominating the solar panel market.

Without significant support from the US government, American industry is at risk of losing the initiative in a huge and growing chunk of the global economy. Retaining a piece of the global battery and electric vehicle market is vital to future US prosperity, but the US will lose out to China in both areas if government policy remains shambolic. Also at stake are the vast array of technologies and methods for removing carbon from the atmosphere that will be vital to our future—from kelp-farming to carbon-negative concretes and carbon fibre made from atmospheric CO2. While many of these are still at the research stage or small in scale, they are indisputably of great importance. And they will find champions elsewhere in the world if the US government does not recognize their significance and encourage their development with appropriate regulation. All of this underlines the point that, far from damaging the US economy as President Trump argues, the Paris agreement offered it a lifeline. Sadly, it’s a lifeline that Trump has just thrown away.

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