Wow, how messed up is this?
Last week President Trump showed his independence and fearlessness by taking a firm stand against pretty much everyone, including his most senior advisors (i.e., even Rex Tillerson, his industry-cultivated Secretary of State) by dropping out of the Paris climate accord. That possibly shouldn’t be a surprise given some of his election-era theorizing, despite the fact that it’s a dubious achievement.
What is a surprise is the environmental ogre – China – that’s leapt into the void as Best Friend of the Environment. It is a mark of the emotional content of the debate that the undisputed world champ in the heavyweight emitter division can be saluted as progressive because it grabs a microphone and says nothing is more important than clean air. That is definitely true, but the claim runs counter to routine apocalyptic air quality scenes that are a Chinese specialty.
The Paris climate accord was an odd beast in the first place, on a literal level, and much more valuable at the symbolic level. As an actual tangible blueprint for slowing the rate of global warming, it was all enthusiasm and little teeth, which made sense – to get everyone on side, it had to be flexible enough to accommodate, say, the Netherlands and Afghanistan under the same “framework” of environmental progress. The Netherlands has a temperate climate, an advanced and wealthy economy, and the ability to utilize bicycles for mass transportation; all this adds up to a certain baseline of environmental stature and a ability to continue improving it. Countries like Afghanistan on the other hand can surpass the GHG (greenhouse gas) reductions of a country like the Netherlands simply by not blowing stuff up. From this basic comparison should leap out the difficulties in measuring progress at the national level.
One comparison that seems somewhat easier to digest though is that of the US and China, the world’s two largest economies. Trump’s abandonment of the accord will no doubt have some negative consequences, but at the same time it is hard to see how China’s enthusiasm is going to provide the sort of benefit being implied by joint EU-China communiqués.
It is worthwhile to look beyond the headlines that imply Trump is dooming the world and China is stepping in to save it. First of all, Trump’s actions with respect to the Paris accord have relatively little meaning on the US’ overall environmental position. States and large corporations have vowed to push forward with their own agendas, and the size of those institutions relative to the US economy is not to be underestimated.
As is often pointed out, California on its own would be the 6th largest economy in the world, and it is one of the most forward thinking with respect to environmental causes. The biggest drawback for the US as a whole, in terms of GHG, would be if coal power came back in a meaningful way. There were reports that some Trump administrators saw the abandonment of the Paris accord as benefitting the US coal industry, even though the coal industry itself urged Trump to stick with the Paris accord.
The topic of coal though is what makes this story kind of irritating. Any possible uptick in US coal consumption pales in comparison with actual coal burning that takes place in China. Everything pales in comparison to the actual coal burning taking place in China, which explains a major portion of their GHG emissions problem.
We could shut in the entire Canadian oil sands and that would offset about half a percent of China’s GHG emissions. Which brings up yet another critical factor that receives no press coverage – high GHG emissions correspond to the number of people being supported. Utilizing the Golden Truth of the environmental movement, that GHG emissions are causing rising global temperatures which is dooming us all, then it should be stone cold obvious that large expenditures in relatively unpopulated countries, incurred for the sole purpose of reducing GHG emissions, is a dumb and inefficient use of resources. If China generates 24 percent of GHG emissions, every global dollar should be spent making China more efficient, as opposed to unpopulated nations that must spend heavily to reduce GHG by a meaningful percentage, the benefit of which is nonexistent to the rest of the world.
That this is so poorly understood shouldn’t be surprising, the same function happens with automobile fuel consumption. For an average vehicle driven say 10,000 miles per year, the benefits to the environment of replacing a truck that averages 17 miles per gallon with one that gets 20 is far greater than replacing one that gets 40 mpg with one that gets 50. Gung ho environmental drivers that replace a Honda Civic with a Prius are, in essence, wasting their time and resources, because they didn’t burn nearly as much in the first place, and Priuses cost a lot more than a Civic
Which brings us back to China. China is not the good guy in the fight against the environment, it is the worst bad guy there is. That’s not an attempt to be nasty, it’s a fact of maintaining a first-world standard of living for 1.3 billion people (and first-world standards are still the dream).
If reducing GHG emissions in order to save the planet is the true, primary objective, the beasts that need conquering are obvious. Trump’s abandonment of the Paris accord is not particularly bothersome on a functional basis, and has not harmed the green movement at all – in fact it may have helped by galvanizing the rest of the world that wants to distance itself from Trump anyway.
But latching on to China as the new good guy in the climate fight is really really dumb, if the goal is to reduce GHG emissions. Their GHG output is huge and growing at a sizeable rate, and even optimistically is not forecast to stop growing until 2030. As such, the battle to save the environment must deal primarily with China if it is to have any meaning at all. With or without Trump, the world’s second largest emitter (the US) will continue its drive for efficiency thanks to low priced natural gas, progressive state governments, and numerous multinational companies that are adopting the spirit of the Paris accord because it’s good business.
So don’t worry as much that Trump left the agreement, worry that the new hero, no matter what comes out of its mouth, has more in common with a junkyard tire fire than a renewable energy beacon. Our global efforts should be redirected accordingly.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here