State of the Planet

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COP 25 in Madrid and the Limits of Climate Diplomacy

The 25th Convention of the Parties went overtime in Madrid last weekend to once again try to make progress on meeting the goals of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 1992 (yes, 1992), the nations of the world agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ever since then they’ve been negotiating about how to bring about those reductions. These global meetings have value in calling attention to the climate crisis and bringing climate experts and advocates together, but they will never result in a binding treaty that will end global warming. Twenty-five years of futility have demonstrated that to be the case. Sovereign nations will never cede decision-making about something as important as their energy system to an authoritative worldwide body enforcing a global agreement. Energy is central to national economic well-being and national economic well-being is central to the maintenance of a political regime’s power and legitimacy. Unless nations believe that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is in their national self-interest, they will never reduce those emissions. And if they ever do believe that such reductions are in their self-interest, they won’t need a treaty to encourage them to reduce emissions.

The fossil fuel-based energy system has transformed our way of life and resulted in technologies that enable us to live lives that would have seemed like a fantasy two centuries ago. But the inefficiency, cost and environmental destruction of that system will cause it to collapse. Fossil fuels must be extracted from the earth at great environmental and financial cost, shipped or piped at great environmental and financial cost and then burned at great environmental and financial cost. Technology can reduce these costs, but the fundamental problem with fossil fuels is that they are finite and they pollute. While there’s plenty left, the low hanging fruit has already been picked and the cost and complexity of extraction are increasing. The business model of fossil fuels is ripe for disruption and renewable energy will be the cause of that disruption.

Contrast the fossil fuel dilemma to the advantages of renewable energy. Renewable energy’s basic fuel is the sun and it will last longer than humans will be around, and no one charges us to use the energy generated by the sun. The fuel is free. We simply have to capture it and store it. The technology of capturing solar energy directly through solar cells and indirectly through wind turbines continues to improve. Battery technology continues to improve. Renewable energy is already competitive with fossil fuels and over the next decade will become even less expensive. Like computer and communication technology: it is rapidly getting better and cheaper.

The economies that decarbonize first will have a cost advantage over those that maintain their old, inefficient, expensive fossil-fuel-based energy system. The global economy may be under attack, but for corporations, the logic of an efficient global supply chain remains. The nations that build renewable resource-based smart-grids will attract business because their energy will be lower cost and more reliable. The fact that they do not emit greenhouse gasses is a byproduct rather than the main product of this more modern energy system. But the national self-interest in economic growth will result in the reduction of greenhouse gasses envisioned in 1992. The issue will be the pace of decarbonization, a great danger as greenhouse gasses accumulate in the atmosphere.

While the meeting in Madrid was a frustrating mess, climate progress can be found in other places. A number of American cities and states have begun efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels. We also see this trend in Europe. Global corporations from Ikea to Walmart are also reducing their use of fossil fuels. While they are not shy about promoting their green credentials, these companies are pursuing renewable energy because at the scale that they operate, it is less expensive than the alternative.

The trend toward renewables is underway and will continue to accelerate. Except in those poor nations that cannot afford a new energy system or are seen as a place to off-load the now lower-value parts of the fossil fuel-based system. China is building coal-fired power plants all over the world. A greenhouse gas emitted from a poor country is just as destructive as one emitted from a rich country. The global policy issue that I anticipate will replace the current issue of national greenhouse gas reductions in wealthy nations will be methods of encouraging developing nations to leapfrog fossil fuels and jump directly into renewables.

If the issue is framed as banning fossil fuels from the developing world, self-interest, national sovereignty and pride will prevent an agreement. If the issue is framed as providing incentives from the developed world to build a carbon-free energy system, there is a good chance that an agreement could be reached. There will be money to be made in building and managing energy infrastructure and political pressure on developing country governments to bring about the lifestyles built on reliable and inexpensive energy technology.

The disagreement and disarray of COP 25 was partially a function of America’s policy of climate denial under President Trump, but in my view was even more related to the triumph of positions that are an outgrowth of narrow and short-sighted interpretations of national self-interest. Appeals to global and intergenerational ethics are of limited usefulness in international relations. The over half-century long ban on the use of nuclear weapons and policies to limit nuclear proliferation are examples of the possibility of global cooperation in the interest of national survival. But the failure of nuclear disarmament is an example of the limits of moral and ethical arguments in international diplomacy.

In the aftermath of COP25, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred (on her Twitter feed) to the meeting as:

An utter failure. #COP25 & conferences like it are intended to be actual negotiations to urgently drawdown global carbon emissions – not cocktail parties to make politicians feel better about themselves as they squash dissent & sell off our futures to fossil fuel interests.

She may be correct that these conferences are intended by some to be “actual negotiations”, but after twenty-five years, I’ve come to expect far less from these discussions. They have value but are limited and perhaps have finally come to the end of their usefulness. A nationally-driven renewable energy/smart grid focused version of Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal would have far more impact on greenhouse gas reduction than the type of international agreement that might now be feasible.

Our focus should be on the development and implementation of renewable energy technologies. A non-ideological consensus could be created around the goal of “Modernizing America’s Energy System.” Pushing for more reliable, lower priced and less polluting energy has a higher probability of success than a direct attack on fossil fuel companies. I question the ability of fossil fuel interests to prevent the transition to a renewable energy economy. It’s not that some won’t try, but the more competent ones will redefine themselves as energy rather than fossil fuel companies. And those that won’t change will be driven out of business by those that do.

Let’s not be discouraged by the failure of COP25 or the climate policies of America’s national government and return to Rene Dubos’ classic admonition to think globally but act locally. The action is in our homes, communities, companies, institutions, cities and states. I remain optimistic about the technologies of renewable energy and the economic opportunities presented by our need to decarbonize and modernize our energy system.

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