COPENHAGEN – President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement leaves the US without a global warming policy. That is alarming. But the world’s response – to double down on the pact in opposition to Trump – should also cause concern.
There have been two conflicting responses to Trump’s decision – often heard from the very same person.
On one hand, we are told that the move imperils the planet. Former US Vice President Al Gore says that Trump is damaging “humanity’s ability to solve the climate crisis.” Business leader Tom Steyer says the Paris accord is “essential to leaving a healthy, safe, and prosperous world to our children” and blasts the president’s “traitorous act of war.”
On the other hand, we hear the defiant suggestion that Trump’s decision might not be so important, because renewable energy is already becoming so cheap that a future without fossil fuels has nearly arrived. Gore claims the planet is in the midst of an “inevitable transition to a clean energy economy,” and Steyer recently said that the time when “renewables plus storage is cheaper than fossil fuels” has already arrived.
Not only are these arguments mutually contradictory; each also happens to be wrong. Abandoning the Paris agreement does not risk our planet’s future, because the agreement itself does little to solve global warming. And green energy is far from locked in as a cost-effective replacement for fossil fuels. Fooling ourselves on these points means failing to address climate change effectively.
To keep the increase in global temperature below the target of 2°C (relative to the preindustrial era), the planet needs to reduce carbon dioxide emissions during this century by about 6,000 billion tons. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the organizer of the Paris accord – estimates that even if every country makes every promised cut, CO2 emissions would fall by just 56 billion tons by 2030.
The UN’s own figures reveal that even in an implausibly optimistic, best-case scenario, the Paris accord would leave 99% of the climate problem in place. This is hardly a sure-fire policy to solve global warming.
Moreover, even before Trump announced his decision, it was unlikely that every country would fulfill every promise. Consider the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Countries signing that agreement actually ended up dropping out or simply ignoring it. The evidence shows that Kyoto ended up having almost no effect.
The inadequacies of the Paris agreement were acknowledged by environmentalists at the time it was signed, though some are changing their tune, in order to stand steadfastly against Trump. Back in 2015, the noted environmentalist Bill McKibben concluded that the accord did just enough “to keep both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry from complaining too much.” Now, he fears the withdrawal “undercuts our civilization’s chances of surviving global warming.”
There is nothing new in the politicization of climate policy or the over-selling of a political agreement. But the deeper problem is that a lot of puffery about the state of renewable energy has accompanied the Paris hype.
This, too, is not new. “A largely or wholly solar economy can be constructed in the United States with straightforward soft technologies that are now demonstrated and now economic or nearly economic,” environmentalist Amory Lovins declared in 1976. In 1984, the Worldwatch Institute assured us that wind subsidies “will not be needed within a few years.”
In fact, the world will spend $125 billion on wind and solar subsidies alone in 2017. Despite four decades of financial support, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that wind provides just 0.5% of today’s energy needs, and solar photovoltaic a minuscule 0.1%.
More than $3 trillion will be spent on subsidies just on wind and solar photovoltaic over the next 25 years. Even by 2040, and assuming that all of the Paris agreement’s promises are fulfilled, the IEA expects wind and solar to provide, respectively, just 1.9% and 1% of global energy. This is not what an economy in the midst of an “inevitable” shift away from fossil fuels looks like.
Solar and wind energy depend on considerable subsidies because in most contexts, they remain more expensive than fossil fuels. When the United Kingdom cut solar power subsidies, installations plummeted. Spain was once paying almost 1% of its GDP in renewable subsidies, more than it spent on higher education. When it cut back, new wind energy production collapsed.
Green energy investors and politicians lead the public-relations advance, assisted by a credulous media that likes to tell green-technology “success” stories. But if green energy were already competitive or near-competitive with fossil fuels, the Paris agreement would be unnecessary. The entire world would be dumping fossil fuels for the cheaper, better option.
Hyping the effects of the Paris agreement and the state of today’s green energy gives us false assurance. We believe that we are doing what is required to “save the planet,” Trump’s move notwithstanding. And we don’t focus on what we actually need to do to rein in temperature rises.
It’s not very complicated: We must end wasteful subsidies for both fossil fuels and inefficient solar and wind. And we should focus on investment in innovation to improve green energy.
Governments and donors must spend much more on research and development than they do now. The fund announced by philanthropist Bill Gates is a very promising start, as is the agreement by 22 countries and the European Union double their investments from $15 billion to $30 billion.
But, to reduce temperatures by more than a fraction of a degree, the planet needs something more like a sixfold increase in green energy R&D. This would still be much cheaper than the Paris agreement, which requires the rollout of expensive, inefficient energy. And it would be much more effective.
Trump richly deserves criticism for abandoning the Paris climate agreement without any alternative plan of action. But, by ignoring reality, the rest of the world is not doing much better.