November 26, 2009

Obama and the Copenhagen Climate Summit

After the American Century

President Obama has announced that he will briefly attend the Copenhagen Climate Summit. This is welcome news. But the timing of the visit (early) and its length (brief) suggest that the White House does not expect a major breakthrough to occur. After all, in the American system of government the President can only carry out what the independent Congress has mandated, and no laws are yet on the books that endorse even the modest 17% cutbacks that Obama has proposed.

One weakness of the preparations for the Copenhagen Summit is that there seem to be no clear guidelines on the methods of calculation that all nations share in advance. So when Obama says the US will cut CO2 emissions by 30% in 2025, this sounds much like what the EU is offering to achieve by 2020. It is not. The EU calculates from 1990 while the US is using a 2005 baseline. What the US is actually promising is to make reductions back to about where it was in 1990, while the EU is promising to go 20% lower than the 1990 level.

A second problem is that the focus really ought to be on per capita energy use and CO2 emissions. The United States uses about twice as much energy per person as Japan, so the US would need to reduce its total energy use by one half just to get to get even. Nations such as China and India, which each have more than four times as many people as the United States, look at per capita energy use, and relatively speaking do not see themselves as the problem. India uses less energy that the United States, and millions of its people still do not have regular electrical service. China is now the world's largest polluter, but the United States is by far the largest per capita.

A third problem is that the summit seems to be focused primarily on ends - CO2 reductions - without a corresponding showcase for the technological means to achieve it. Some nations, notably the UK, are adopting atomic energy as the way forward, since nuclear plants produce almost no CO2 compared to coal-fired ones. The problem is that atomic energy does produce serious amounts of toxic waste, and it must be stored for hundreds, or in some cases for thousands of years. Look around for examples of hermetically sealed buildings that have been constantly guarded for even 100 years. There are none. When all the long-term costs and dangers of atomic power are included, is it not likely that wind, tide, thermal, and solar power are more desirable?

In short, in addition to having a big political circus with heads of state coming that negotiate on the ends, the world needs an equally big demonstration of what is already possible. We already have the means available to build houses that are close to self-sufficient. We already can make automobiles that are twice as efficient as the average vehicle on the road today. There are hundreds of new technologies and best practices that just need to become better known and put to use.

The Kyoto agreement focused on noble ends, but they have not been achieved. In practice, not even one of the major industrial nations that signed the Kyoto agreement has in fact managed to do what they promised. In every case, energy use has continued to rise. (See my October 1, 2009 blog on this.) It is time to focus more on the technological means. The leaders can promise whatever they like, but will they know how to achieve those noble ends?