Grasping in Glasgow
Now that the Conference of the Parties 26th Summit on climate change (known colloquially as COP26) is over we can see how the world leaders are responding to a threat deemed by the summiteers to be existential.
Various pundits pointed out the irony that the conference itself had a carbon footprint the size of a small African country. Even the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles, noted President Biden’s personal climate impact, not specifically referring to his extended 85-car motorcade.
The core product of the effort was 1,208 documents with titles like, “Compilation and synthesis of, and summary report on the in-session workshop on, biennial communications of information related to Article 9, paragraph 5, of the Paris Agreement.”
This item, still in draft form as we read it, had 19 points that recognized, underlined, welcomed, recalled, reiterated, urged, underscored, noted, requested, invited, and encouraged. It ended, sadly, with an escape clause: “19. Requests that the actions of the secretariat called for in this decision be undertaken subject to the availability of financial resources.”
Bill Gates was there and noted a productive shift in topics towards new technologies, a stronger presence of the private sector and more attention to supporting the economic development of poorer countries.
The private sector participants were carefully signaling virtue while hoping to establish a new business model that might be the beneficiary of the assorted subsidies floating around the conference.
In the newly inked Glasgow Climate Pact, the Economist noted that the conferees agreed to accelerate their delivery of a plan for 2030 de-carbonization next year instead of waiting until 2025. The hope is that speeding up the plan for de-carbonization might also speed up the de-carbonization itself.
Also according to the Economist, “Rules to create a framework for a global carbon market were approved, settling a problem that had plagued negotiators since 2015.” Well, now that the rules for framework creation are in place we can proceed to the actual framework, which might one day lead to a viable global carbon market.
All in all, it was not a bad outcome. No one stomped off in anger, and all seemed agreeable to participate in COP 27, next year in Egypt. We have to confess ignorance that these meetings were an annual event. The oldest account we could find was the Kyoto COP 3 in 1997 that produced the famous Kyoto Protocol lauded by Vice President Gore but dismissed by the Senate in a 98 – 0 drubbing.
Since the Kyoto experience no President has had the temerity to put these conference agreements up for ratification by the Senate, which would give them the force of law in the United States. So the Glasgow Climate Pact is essentially an agreement between President Biden and the other countries. It can be suspended in the same way that U.S. involvement in the Paris Climate Accords was ended by a new administration.
One puzzling aspect of these confabs over the years is talking around some key aspects of the problem and potential solutions. For example, beginning in 1974, France took 40% of their energy grid off fossil fuels and they did it in only ten years. Today, only 8% of the French electric grid is sourced from fossil fuels with 71% from nuclear and 10% from hydro.
Clearly the technology to de-carbonize electricity production has existed for decades yet these conferences seemed focused on solutions like wind and solar that are only marginally viable in terms of reliability.
In Glasgow, for the first time, nuclear energy had a seat at the table with the French (obviously), and Obama and Biden both touting nuclear technology. Perhaps we have reached a sufficient level of panic over climate change that anti-nuclear ideology will no longer trump the science and the common sense of this ultimate source of green energy.
The actual contributors of atmospheric CO2 are displayed in the chart nearby. China’s carbon footprint is larger than all of the G-7 countries combined. It almost does not matter what the rest of the world agrees to do as China ramps up coal mining and adds new coal-powered facilities to its grid almost weekly.
Even better, China has been providing very low cost coal power plants to the developing world for years. Those plants are much appreciated by growing economies that are desperate for cheap reliable power.
Real commitments from only the rich countries means we have a little more than one quarter of the problem in hand. In a state with 0.1 % of the global carbon footprint, a Californian cynic might wonder if we are suffering with an increasingly unreliable (yet, renewable) power grid just so China can burn more coal. Ultimately, at the insistence of India and the developing countries, the conference agreed to “phase down” coal rather than “phase it out.”
Recall the Montreal Protocol of 1987, designed to solve the problem of the hole in the ozone layer by eliminating Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) used in refrigeration and some consumer products. It was submitted by President Reagan and ratified unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 1988. All 197 countries eventually signed the protocol. Despite being the gold standard of international climate agreements, compliance remains a challenge.
Notably, China was granted additional time to phase out production due to the rapid growth of air conditioning in its urban centers. Today, China accounts for 78% of global HCFC production and they are receiving an annual payment of $95 million from the U.N. to support their transition. Happily, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has been dramatically reduced in the intervening 34 years.
Clearly Glasgow is not Montreal. If Glasgow is how we respond to an “existential” threat, we have to be worried about our response to some approaching extinction-event sized asteroid or an attack by intergalactic aliens.
I recently re-watched the sci-fi spoof Mars Attacks! (Spoiler alert) In that instance, the global existential threat was defeated by broadcasting Slim Whitman’s yodeling cowboy music which caused the aliens’ heads to explode.
Unfortunately, cowboy music is probably not a good solution to stop the climate from changing.