A Free-Market Energy Blog

Paris Climate Accord Death Spiral Underway (FT article begins the autopsy)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- December 18, 2018

“It has become increasingly clear that Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t just led to the withdrawal of the United States from the landmark agreement. It has also halted the rest of the world’s efforts…. Call it the ‘Trump’ effect.”

– Joseph Curtin, “Trump Has Officially Ruined Climate Change Diplomacy for Everyone.” FT, December 12, 2018.

Another realistic, “defeatist” article about the futile global crusade to cap and reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions has been published. “Trump Has Officially Ruined Climate Change Diplomacy for Everyone,” subtitled “The evidence is in: the Paris Agreement doesn’t work without the United States,” joins other articles (such as rising global coal consumption, profiled last week at MasterResource) in the death rattle.

Joseph Curtin, senior fellow at the Institute of International and European Affairs, authored the blunt assessment. His article follows (in red) with my comments indented.

The Paris Agreement became a milestone in the fight against climate change by binding all countries, no matter their level of economic development or emissions profile, to a unified process for decarbonization. The agreement’s momentum, however, has now been halted by a countervailing force. Call it the “Trump effect.”

It has become increasingly clear that Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t just led to the withdrawal of the United States from the landmark agreement. It has also halted the rest of the world’s efforts.

Comment: This reconfirms Trump’s climate policy as a highlight of his Administration, not to mention a notable moment in classical-liberal political history. In terms of US energy policy, Ronald Reagan did nothing so bold (after promising to abolish the recently established US Department of Energy).

To understand how damaging the Trump effect has been to global decarbonization, it’s important to understand how the Paris Agreement was supposed to work—and how important an actively engaged United States was to the effort. The overall goal is well known: to keep global temperatures “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.” The individual pledges made by countries, however, lacked collective ambition. That’s why countries also agreed to an “ambition mechanism,” under which they would take on increasingly demanding targets following global progress assessments every five years.

Comment: As Trump noted in his withdrawal speech, the so-called ambition mechanism was stacked against the US and gave a free pass for Asia. As the aforementioned New York Times piece stated, there are 1,200 (twelve hundred) coal plants either under construction or planned in Asia.

Here is a prediction. As the impossible climate math accumulates for the alarmists, expect new climate models to lower their sensitivity estimates to, ahem, give us a new “last chance” to “save the planet.” To which the global lukewarmers will say, welcome to climate realism….

The architects of the agreement hoped that meeting existing pledges—even weak ones—would catalyze faster deployment of green technologies, leading to economies of scale, reduced technology costs, and positive spillovers that all would benefit from. This may sound somewhat theoretical, but in fact it is how previous successful efforts at decarbonization have worked in practice. For example, Germany’s widespread deployment of solar photovoltaic technology in the 1990s and 2000s spurred dramatic cost reductions that have opened a door to decarbonization across the world, from Mexico to India. Meeting any pledges under the Paris Agreement could therefore open up new space for parties to take on more robust commitments over time.

Comment: Renewable energies are plagued by inherent diluteness and intermittency, not a lack of capital or will. Dense mineral energies won in the day of Jevons and will win today–for the same reasons. Do not expect competitiveness or comparability from wind and (on-grid) solar anytime soon.

At least that was the hope. There are three distinct channels, however, through which the Trump effect is damaging this institutional process.

First, the rollback of environmental regulations burdensome to the fossil fuel industry, including major Obama-era policies to fight climate change, has increased the attractiveness of investing in the dirtiest fossil fuels. The risk that these investments could be “stranded” by committed climate policy has been reduced. For institutional investors making judgments between different projects, this increases the attractiveness of the dirtiest projects vis-à-vis low-carbon alternatives.

Comment: A great day for consumers and taxpayers indeed–and good news for the countryside to escape land-intensive wind turbines and solar farms. The rollback of Obama’s keep-it-in-the-ground regulation is energy fairness, let-the-market-decide.

We can already see the impact. Following the 2015 Paris deal, in 2016 there was a falloff of investment in the dirtiest fossil fuel projects, including coal and tar sands, as investors became increasingly concerned that global leaders were serious about meeting climate objectives. However, the Trump effect reversed this trend in 2017, as North American investors poured resources into carbon-intensive, financially risky, and environmentally destructive fossil fuel projects. We can see the mirror image when it comes to investment in renewables: 2016 was a bumper year, but in 2017 the Trump effect reversed the momentum.

Comment: Don’t blame politics–blame inferiority. And on environmental grounds, fossil fuels are cleaner than wind turbines and solar farms per unit of usable energy produced. Unless this writer is thinking about mass applications of nuclear power (it is not even mentioned!).

It is true as some have argued that market fundamentals—in particular cheaper renewables and gas—along with ambitious state and city efforts will ameliorate some of the damage of the Trump effect, but at the very least, one should expect years of stasis, litigation, and uncertainty. Given the size of the U.S. economy, slower deployment flattens learning curves for green technologies globally, making it costlier for other parties to the Paris Agreement to take on more ambitious pledges in the future.

Comment: Learning curves for renewable energies? A historical review will show that renewables economically failed before and after the climate alarm, necessitating massive government subsidies and mandates.

Second, the U.S. decision to withdraw has created political and moral cover for further defections from the agreement. Russia and Turkey have abandoned plans to ratify, while Australia reversed a decision to implement measures to comply with its Paris pledge, all citing Trump’s withdrawal decision. Most significantly, the newly elected president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, also pointing to the precedent established by Trump.

Comment: A welcome dynamic indeed–the Trump effect is really the self-interested Economics 101 effect. Perhaps the best climate strategy from the alarmist viewpoint is to cancel the next round of climate negotiations to avoid the air travel of tens of thousands of participants.

It is true that other major players including the European Union, India, and China remain committed to the Paris Agreement and are on track to achieve their pledges. But the critical question was always whether these three players would take on more ambitious commitments in 2020, which they already have the technical ability to achieve and had already hinted at a willingness to accept. They are unlikely to take the political risks of announcing a more challenging target in the absence of a similar commitment from the United States. In this manner, the Trump effect could be grinding the Paris “ambition mechanism” to a halt.

What? The EU, India, and China “are on track to achieve their pledges”? What pledges? A simple look at the trend of CO2 emissions tells the story.

Finally, the Trump administration’s behavior is souring goodwill between developing and developed country parties at ongoing negotiations. The Trump administration reneged on a pledge to the Green Climate Fund, leaving an outstanding liability of $2 billion, and has opposed stringent rules for reporting on financial commitments. These decisions have aggravated distrust between developed and developing countries.

Comment: Trump is actually doing these countries a favor–and behind the scenes they might just be thanking him. The Great Climate False Alarm is unraveling as journalists get realistic and the hype evaporates.

So there is no shortage of evidence that Trump’s decision has applied a worldwide brake to the Paris Agreement. Uncertainty has already altered the risk profiles associated with green versus fossil fuel technologies; commonly held perceptions of fairness have been violated, creating moral and political space for future defections, while the likelihood that other key players will increase their ambition has receded; and goodwill between developing and developed countries has diminished.

What are the prospects for the Paris Agreement within the context of this damage? While the agreement may be listing badly, it is a mistake to suggest that it is about to sink, or that all parties are failing to live up to their commitments. In fact, the most important players—China, India, and, in particular, the EU—are honoring their commitments. Major economies and institutional investors have, to some extent, adopted a wait-and-see posture in advance of the U.S. presidential election in 2020.

Comment: Fantasy. The death spiral has begun. The Paris agreement is going the way of the Kyoto Protocol.

But it’s equally a mistake to see withdrawal as the aberrant act of an unconventional president. In fact, it was widely supported across the Republican Party and the wider conservative movement and reflects broader and deeper structural factors within the U.S. political economy, including the entanglement of fossil fuel interests and politics.

Comment: More than this, the revolt against energy rationing and economic progress reflects the innumerable false claims and exaggerations of so-called climate science. Malthusian garbage in – garbage out climate models continue a tradition of error from sophisticated models that began at least with the 1972 MIT Limits to Growth, running-out-of-resources model.

Furthermore, the U.S. withdrawal fits neatly into a pattern established by Republican administrations extending back nearly four decades: President Ronald Reagan famously declared open war on solar energy and was determined to reverse as many environmental regulations as possible in service of the drilling and mining lobbies; the George H.W. Bush administration delayed the agreement of a climate treaty in the late 1980s and at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit refused to commit to specific emissions reductions; and a decade later President George W. Bush renounced the Kyoto Protocol.

Comment: Correct, but why did Bush 41 even go to the Rio Summit in 1992? Enron cronyism was involved in this mistake.

In the short run, the Paris Agreement can resist the Trump effect—indeed, it was designed to do so. But in the medium and longer term, it will continue to be assailed by instability and uncertainty until the underlying structural factors in the U.S. political-economy can be addressed.

Comment: Time is running out fast for the Paris Climate Accord. It may even be dead by 2020. Remember what the father of the climate alarm said about the Paris accord upon passage:

“[The Paris agreement] is a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say:We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

8 Comments


  1. Ron Clutz  

    Joseph Curtin published a report along the same lines at the Institute of International and European Affairs.

    “At the heart of the Agreement is an “ambition mechanism”, under which Parties are required to make progressively more ambitious pledges to reduce emissions following global “stocktakes” every five years. This mechanism was designed to catalyse greater efforts over the coming decades, but the Trump Effect has applied a brake via three distinct channels:

    *US Federal rollbacks have increased the attractiveness of fossil fuel investments globally;
    *The US decision to withdraw from the Agreement has created moral and political cover for others to follow suit; and
    *Goodwill at international negotiations has been damaged.”

    Report is here: https://www.iiea.com/publication/the-paris-climate-agreement-versus-the-trump-effect-countervailing-forces-for-decarbonisation/

    My synopsis: https://rclutz.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/2018-trump-winning-ipcc-losing/

    Reply

  2. Charles Battig  

    Good news for coal…North Korea is reported to have stepped up its own coal production for gasification as a way around oil embargo.

    Reply

  3. Mark Krebs  

    Joseph Curtin: Any relation to Jane Curtin “the queen of deadpan comics”?

    Reply

  4. A. Human  

    Aren’t the India and China commitments that “maybe” they’ll make commitments in 20 years or so after they’ve build a few hundred coal powered plants to provide one of the basic necessities for any person or family to progress and improve their lot in life i.e. Abundant Electricity!!!
    China and India are and were laughing up their sleeves at Obama, Kerry, and most especially the ManBearPig himself when they gave their non-commitment commitments.
    The two greatest spewers of CO2 in the world promised to make commitments in 20 years or so and the author of this article believes they are “keeping their commitments”.
    If I were to show such stupidity and ignorance in the performance of my job, I’d end up with no job at all (Electrical Engineering).

    Reply

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