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Why CO₂ emissions will keep rising.

Posted by Graeme in Economics,Politics at 12:17 pm on Wednesday, 29 March 2023

We have had many climate change agreements that have not changed anything. The greenwashing was inevitable and to be expected. This graph from Our World in Data says it all: there has been no change in trajectory.

Europe and North America have reduced their emissions, but that has been more than offset by increases in other countries, and to a large extent, by moving high emission activities to those very countries. With their growing prosperity rooted in this these are exactly the countries that are unlikely to actually reduce emissions.

CO₂ emission are far more important than either offsetting or other greenhouse gas emissions. I have not always been all that concerned about climate change because (like most people) I thought of the primary effect as being temperature rises, which will have regional variations, have some benefits, have varied quite a lot (at a regional level, possibly at global) in the last few tens of thousands of years, and which both we can adapt to (and hopefully natural ecosystems too). I have recently been reading about ocean acidification, and I find that scary. It could wipe out or impoverish  whole ecosystems, globally.

A lot of the commitments have been to achieve “net zero”. This encourages greenwashing, because it leaves leaves room for doing things that make the numbers look better, but do not actually benefit the environment. You can plant some trees to offset emissions over their life, but what guarantee is there they will survive all political, economic and environmental change over decades? All the more so given many are monocultures so whole tracts could be wiped out by one disease.

Then look at some of the actual pledges. China and India have agreed to net-zero in 2060 and 2070 respectively. Nearly 40 years and nearly half a century. Will a commitment hold that long? Thinking about how much the world has changed in the last half century, I am very sceptical.

One of those changes has been that the influence of the west has dwindled, and it is in the west that there is the strongest political and popular support for limiting emissions. This will continue as Asian economies grow. In thirty years time this will all depend on Chinese and Indian politics – and China is a dictatorship that has never shown much sign of caring about the environment. India and other major growth economies have a lot to do.

Another problem, which is global, is that capitalism has a built-in bias to promoting economic activity over lack of activity, and the best thing for the environment is to do less: consume less, produce less, not do things. This encourages the sale of green products – so there is a strong incentive to do things like replacing energy infrastructure, but little incentive to preserve eco-systems by leaving them alone, so we both chop down forests, and then generate “carbon credits” by planting trees.

There are other issues with forests as well – e.g. claiming carb credits for forests no one had any intention of cutting down in the first place.  Offsetting has other problems – you can claim the offset for planting a tree when it is planted on the assumption that it will grow to maturity, but there is no guarantee that it will do so, or even that it is likely to do so. All this is encouraged by commitment to metrics that are easily cheated.

There are many other examples of things that are sold with a false promise of being “green”, or that people could do that are not done because there is no profit in it (and therefore no profit in promoting it).

I suspect some people will say that the cure for the bias in capitalism is more government control. The problem is that the biggest growth in CO₂ emissions has come from China, a country where business is controlled by the government.

Other state controlled economies do not have a great record either. The worst instance of climate change we have seen so far has been the death of the Aral Sea, which has not only turned most of what was once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water into near desert, destroying its rich ecosystem, and the economies it support, but also devastated the climate of a huge region around it. It will be extremely hard to reverse because one of the effects has been reduced rainfall feeding it. Who caused this devastation? The centrally planned Soviet Union.

Some will argue that the increase in CO₂ emissions and other pollutants by countries like China is still the fault of the rich countries, because that is where they export to, and they manufacture to export. This is true to an extent, but is far from being the whole truth. Chinese exports are about 18% of its GDP, and it exports to virtually every country: India imports more from China than the UK does.

There is also a lack of willingness to do anything about this. For example, carbon border taxes (i.e. import duties based on the emissions used to produce imported goods) have been discussed for a long time, particularly by the EU. So far, the only progress has been a (not yet implemented agreement) to require the trading of emissions trading certificates for a small number of goods from 2026. Of course, emissions trading certificates will just lead back to the same problem of greenwashing.

There are also ways around this, and it could even make the problem worse. The current proposals will only tax input products like steel and hydrogen. This will encourage the import of finished products instead. Back to step one.

There are many things people can do that will make a difference, but these are not pushed – there is no incentive to. For example urban plants, including gardens, are a significant carbon sink. It is relatively easy to make them far more effective a carbon sink and very good for wildlife. Less effort than maintaining a conventional lawn. Very few are willing to do this. In fact, the general trend in the UK has been to make things worse by replacing gardens with tarmac and decking in order to reduce maintenance.

Many people are willing to buy a new electric car (a dubious improvement given the environmental impact of manufacturing), but very few are willing to change their shopping habits or “neglect” their garden.

All the net-zero targets in the world maybe achieved, but they will not change anything. It is interesting that Greta Thurnberg has been in the news far less since she called out the greenwashing of COP27. As with many things, the metrics have now become more important than the reality. I told you so.

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