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A binding agreement to non-binding targets looks likely

My Times column on the coming summit on climate policy in Paris:


The first council of Nicea, held 1,690 years ago this summer, decided upon a consensus about the nature of God, namely that the son had been “begotten not made, being of one substance with the father”, as Athanasius argued, and not created out of nothing, as Arius argued. Phew. Glad they settled that.

The 21st conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as the “11th session of the meeting of the parties to the Kyoto protocol”, in Paris this December, will be scarcely less theological.

Its purpose is to get international agreement to emissions cuts that will limit the global temperature increase to 2C above pre-industrial levels. Given that nobody knows for sure what those levels were, how sensitive to industrial emissions global temperatures are, how emissions will change, when the 2C threshold would be reached, how much natural climate change there will be, or how much damage (or benefit) two degrees of global warming would cause, this is as practical as arguing about the nature of the trinity.

It is a fair bet that 17 centuries from now, the Paris climate summit will seem as unworldly as the first council of Nicea, and a lot less consensual. All 20 of the previous climate summits have proved futile, even though their participants usually declare victory at the final press conference. There are no binding international agreements to cut emissions and the chances of one this time are small.

Developing countries will not agree to limit the growth of emissions (and put economic growth at risk) unless they get the $100 billion a year they were promised at Copenhagen five years ago. Few developed countries wish to fulfil that promise. A binding climate treaty has as much chance of passing the Republican-controlled Congress in the United States as a declaration of atheism would have had at Nicea.

To resolve this, the sherpas working towards the Paris climate summit have come up with a neat formula. As Bloomberg reports, they are “coalescing around a deal that would commit every country to restricting greenhouse gases but bind none to specific targets”. Brilliant: a binding agreement to non-binding targets!

Gesture, in other words, is all. The British government seems to understand this well. Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, said in her speech on Friday, that she wants a “strong, ambitious, rules-based agreement that makes the shift to a clean global economy irreversible” — knowing full well that such a thing is vanishingly unlikely to emerge in a form that commits us to anything. She’s just reciting the Nicene creed.

She is meanwhile boldly trying to rein in some of Ed Miliband’s and Chris Huhne’s regressive stealth taxes on energy bills, which have been subsidising crony capitalists in the renewable energy industry and driving jobs abroad. Since these measures have been bringing down emissions very little and at a cost per tonne far exceeding the damage likely to be done by climate change, this is sensible reform.

The spectacle of Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians lamenting the harm these reforms will do to the confidence of wealthy investors in the wind industry is a wonder to behold. It is not as if the Tory manifesto’s promise to stop onshore wind farms was a secret, and it allows Conservatives to champion the poor, on whom the cost of these green measures has fallen disproportionately, through their energy bills. Our electricity prices are twice as high as America’s.

It was always fanciful to think that wind and solar farms could stop global warming. Despite vast subsidies, their deployment is not even keeping up with the increase in energy demand. To the nearest whole number, wind produced 1 per cent of global energy (ie, 3 per cent of global electricity) in 2014; solar, 0 per cent. Fossil fuels’ share was 87 per cent, unchanged from ten years earlier. With current technology, only a vast expansion of nuclear power, a switch from coal to gas and a surge in energy efficiency, especially in China and India, can slow down the rise in emissions significantly, let alone affordably. (As always, I declare an interest in fossil fuels, mainly coal.)

[According the the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, which is the best source for these matters, wind energy production grew by 14.8 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2014 and and solar by 11.6 mtoe. So between them they grew by 26.4 mtoe in 2014, whereas total energy use grew by 121 mtoe. Total wind production was 145 mtoe, solar 30 mtoe. Total world energy use was 12,928mtoe. So wind was 1.12%; solar was 0.23%. Total renewables was 317 mtoe (2.4%), which includes hydro and biomass.]

Ms Rudd also signalled that she would stop Britain’s policy of unilateral decarbonisation at a faster rate than other countries, as mandated in Mr Miliband’s Climate Change Act of 2008. Rightly she realises that it simply exports the problem, along with jobs in energy-intensive industries. Messrs Miliband and Huhne used to justify our unilateralism on the grounds that we were setting an example that the world would follow. We are the “ world leader” in offshore wind, which produces electricity at three times the wholesale price and intermittently, only because the world seems unpersuaded to follow.

Supposing the Paris conference produces its expected fudge, what should our energy policy look like? The European Union is trying to get agreement on a 40 per cent reduction in emissions (from 1990 levels) by 2030, but this is conditional on agreement in Paris. The Poles and other Eastern European countries are opposed to going it alone again, even before a non-binding agreement in Paris.

That will give the British government the opportunity to revisit its own targets. According to part 1, section 2, of the Climate Change Act, the secretary of state has the power to amend the act’s CO2 targets if there is a significant change in international climate policy. She should grasp it. The targets were predicated on rising fossil fuel prices to make renewables look affordable (whereas fossil fuel prices have plummeted), on rapidly rising temperatures (temperatures have risen much more slowly over the past 40 years than predicted), and on international agreement (which has not been reached). Put money into research instead.

The political risk would be small. Parties sceptical of renewable energy have done well at the ballot box in Poland, Canada and Australia. The big green pressure groups have little backing among the public, just a lot of influence in parliament, the City and the BBC. In a United Nations opinion poll, in which people all over the world are asked to list their most urgent priorities in order, and which has already attracted more than seven million responses, climate change comes dead last of 16 options. People are no more obsessed with climate change policy than they were with whether the son was begotten of the father in AD325.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times