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Tuesday 19 January 2016

Beware the self serving finger waggers

After the big bang of the final declaration at the Paris climate change conference we have barely heard a whimper. Yes, there have been distractions, with terrorism monopolizing headlines at least for the past few weeks. But have no doubt Climate change will return once again. Have no doubt we we will hear the all to frequent, the all too shrill calls to action supported by exhortations to save the planet before the rapidly approaching tipping point. Yes you detect my skepticism. My issue is not with Global Warming (see my earlier post Credo on Climate Change re my personal position) but with the whole circus that seems to be the way the modern world approaches and executes change.

Consider COP21. The wash-up is a range of 'historical', 'unprecedented', global commitments by almost 200 nations to stop the world heating by 2 degrees over the next 85 years. It sounds fantastic and I guess I believe it is. Without getting into the plausibility of the result, the real miracle of COP21 is not just getting any agreement at all, although that is admittedly an achievement, but the swifty that the largest emitters have pulled on the rest of the world. Yes I called it a swifty, a sleight of hand, a subterfuge. The largest contributors to global warming have gained commitments from smaller contributors that are clearly far in excess of their contribution to the problem.
"The largest emitters have pulled a swifty on the rest of the world"

Consider the facts

The greatest contribution to climate change since industrialization has come from USA and Europe with significant contributions by China , Russia and Japan. (see graphic below.)

China is most notable for the speed with which it has become the largest annual emitter and a significant driver of global warming in its own right, despite its much more recent industrialization.

The historical contributions of just 5 countries, if you will permit me to call Europe a country, to global warming is approx 75%. Three quarters of all global warming (to 2011) is due to just these 5. One would therefore expect that the contribution to the mitigation effort should be commensurate. Quite simply if you caused 75% of the problem you should clean up 75% of the problem. You clean up your own mess. Well, let's see.

A vast majority of the pledges made at Paris were based on a nominated percentage reduction of GHG emissions below some baseline rate by a nominated deadline. The actual percentages and baseline dates vary but do not really impact on the problem. At first glance it may seem quite reasonable that each country makes commitments that reduce their own emission rates, especially if the reductions are of the same magnitude, and indeed most countries have chosen roughly similar reductions. So each country is effectively making equal commitments based on their own contribution. That's ok, isn't it?
 No it isn't.
Climate change is the result of the cumulative impact of emissions over decades. So any mitigation should relate to the cumulative impact of a country.

But all Paris pledges are based on emissions rates as opposed to cumulative historical emissions.

And here is the problem. The large emitters, Europe and the US, and to a lesser extent Russia and Japan, went through industrialization a long time ago and have had high emissions for a much longer time. Their current annual emissions may still be high, but nowhere near their cumulative impact.

Lets look at the numbers. While the top 5 contributors to climate change represent 75% of cumulative emissions they only represent 50% of current emission rates. (see below)

So pledges based on current emission rates will always favor the earlier industrialized countries. 

But wait there is more

If that were not bad a enough there is a second problem.  GHG emission rates do not take into account the impact of imports and exports. The GHG generated in the production of goods is generally not included in the emission rates attributed to a country. So the producing country  has the burden of the emissions which are enjoyed by the consuming country. Countries like the US and Europe are major importers of high GHG products and therefore benefit from this error, while exporters like China bear the burden in their emission figures.

China is the elephant in the room

But let's not start feeling sorry for poor China. Yes, China can rightly expect an adjustment in their emission rates for the impact of exports, and it is not insignificant. It amounted to some 22% in 2005 and would, I guess be similar today (see my earlier post Seeking a fair GHG reduction target - Part 5: Who is responsible? which presents some of these figures with sources). However, even after adjusting for the exports error, China remains the largest annual emitter, by far.

In any case, China has virtually opted out of any reduction commitments. It has agreed to decrease the carbon intensity of its economy by 60-65% by 2030. But it had already committed to a 40% reduction by 2020, and it seems its extended commitment is really 'Business as usual', requiring it to simply continue along its current path of building more gas/nuclear power stations than coal fired ones.

China has justified its stance on the basis that its industrialization is relatively recent and that it should be accorded the same 'free emissions ' that the rest of the industrialized world enjoyed over the decades. That too may sound like a reasonable argument, but the figures don't stack up. China's Emissions per capita is already equal to that of Europe and also rising fast. So it should increase the standard of living of its citizens as is the case for Europe with no greater emissions than Europe's.

So like many arguments posed in this messy battle for the moral high-ground, it is self-serving, deceptive and false.

Everyone is complicit

Given these rather blatant errors in the accounting of emissions and the specious justifications for low pledges, why haven't the strong CC adherents and their media hangers-on called this out? Let's face it the chatterati are not really good at nuances. They don't fit well into a 15 second grab. As for the strong CC adherents, it is a silent acquiescence. Given that the errors in emissions accounting serve to apply more pressure to more countries for ever higher commitments, they choose to let it run. In short they are tacitly complicit.

So beware! Beware the self-serving finger-waggers wielding their dagger of shame at the smaller countries. Don't be seduced by false measures and beguiling justifications, and face the unpalatable truth, that despite the inspiring words uttered. Despite the wide acclaim by the cheering masses. Despite their much lauded commitments at Paris, our leading polluters, the United States, Europe and China, have not accepted their fair share of the burden of GHG mitigation. Shame on them.

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