The Post-Global Warming World
Moving on from climate virtue.
WSJ, Editorial, October 25, 2011
The United Nations will convene its 17th annual climate-change conference next month in Durban, South Africa, with the purpose of sealing a new carbon-cutting deal to succeed the soon-to-expire 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It promises to be a historic event, if not in the way the organizers might hope.
The chances that a global deal on carbon would ever be reached were always slim, a point brought home by the collapse of the comic 2009 Copenhagen summit. But obituaries are sometimes late to print. Now, at last, the U.S., Russia and Japan have all said they won't agree to any new binding carbon pact, while India and China were never believers in the first place.
That leaves the European Union, which until last month was "the only one still considering signing up in some fashion to a second commitment period," according to Todd Stern, the Obama Administration's climate negotiator. Even that's no longer true. Last week, EU Climate Action Director General Jos Delbeke told reporters that "in reality what may happen is that the Europeans will pronounce themselves politically in favor of the Kyoto Protocol" but won't lock themselves into any new anticarbon pacts unless "other parties join the club." Regarding that likelihood, see above.
That isn't the only reality check Europe is facing on the carbon front. In an internal memo first reported last week by Dow Jones Newswires, the European Commission's energy department observed that "there is a trade-off between climate-change policies and competitiveness." By the EU's own estimate, the cost of meeting its current carbon emissions targets—a cut of at least 20% of 1990 emissions levels by 2020—comes to at least €48 billion ($67 billion) per year.
For a closer look at the price Europeans pay for their carbon virtue, consider Tata, Europe's second-largest steelmaker. Last month the company warned that "EU carbon legislation threatens to impose huge additional costs on the steel industry," citing this as one reason to close some of its U.K. operations and possibly cut some 1,200 jobs. Yet under the terms of Europe's cap-and-trade scheme, Tata could be paid at least €20 million this year and next for those closures and layoffs.
Europe also seems to be getting wiser, if not yet wise, to the prohibitive costs of being green. In Britain, the government of David Cameron—which entered office last year promising to be the country's "greenest government ever"—has scrapped plans for a carbon-capture-and-storage plant in Scotland, which was set to bust its £1 billion budget. "If there was a completely unlimited resource then we may have been able to surmount the technical problems," Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne told the BBC.
Then there are those "technical problems." The process of capturing and compressing CO2 is energy-intensive. Storing the carbon once it's been sequestered is another issue. In Germany, a 30-megawatt carbon-capture pilot plant has been in operation since 2008. Yet plant-operator Vattenfall must truck the sequestered CO2 more than 150 kilometers daily to store it in the nearest suitable locale. The company also recently suspended its plans for large-scale carbon capture and storage at Janschwalde in Germany. Environmental groups oppose putting carbon underground because they fear living above huge carbon sinks.
And so it goes with every technology that claims to promise greenhouse-gas salvation. Wind power may emit zero carbon, but windmills need up to 90% of their capacity backed up to prevent blackouts—usually with coal and gas plants. Windmills also kill a lot of birds. As for solar power, a new study from the University of Tennessee and Occupational Knowledge International finds that manufacturing the necessary lead batteries threatens to release more than 2.4 million tons of lead pollution by 2022, or one-third of today's total global lead production.
The science on climate change and man's influence on it is far from settled. The question today is whether it makes sense to combat a potential climate threat by imposing economically destructive regulations and sinking billions into failure-prone technologies that have their own environmental costs. The earnest people going to Durban next month may think so. The rest of the world is wearier and wiser.