Some good news on US carbon emissions: they went down by 7.0% in 2009. Added to the 2.7% decline before, the US is already half-way to the softball Waxman-Markey target of a 17% cut from the 2005 peak by 2020.
An elegant graph American readers bought with your tax dollars:
Source: EIA. H/T: can’t recall
It’s a bit of a surprise that this has not become a conservative talking point (footnote): see, we don’t need cap-and-trade, things are doing just fine! Let me refute it anyway.
A third of the decline (2.4%) was driven by the recession. Thought experiment: if the economy had grown by a plausible trend 2.5%, the net carbon decline ceteris paribus would have been only 2.3%, less than the previous year’s 3.0%. Compounded for 40 years, that would give a reduction of 58% from 2008, and 61% from the peak year of 2005. (Trivial calculations from the spreadsheet versions of the chart data). So the structural trend would fall well short of meeting Obama’s objective of an 80% reduction from peak by 2050. Remember that this target isn’t radical, but pretty conservative by Copenhagen or Stern standards. Stern asks why rich countries, and especially the wasteful USA, should be entitled to the same frugal share of future carbon emission as developing countries. 4 tons of carbon a head per year, down from the American peak of 20, is still too much.
The report splits the improvement into two roughly equal parts: a first reduction in the energy intensity of GDP, and a second reduction in the carbon intensity of energy. Compared to the previous year (2007/2008), the striking changes in energy intensity were:
- a 10% decline in industrial energy use, at least half of it cyclical – the study ignores this, only mentioning the smaller long-term shift to services
- a reversal in commercial and residential use from a slight increase to a slight decline (below 2% each): this could be partly cyclical, but I’ll read it optimistically as a new structural trend.
Transportation use just continued its trend decline.
In energy production, the drivers of the improvement were both in electricity generation: in equal parts
- a price-driven shift from coal to natural gas, which could be reversed if prices swing the other way
- an increase in renewables and nuclear – mostly due to wind. This reflects a long-term shift in the generation portfolio that is unlikely to be reversed, since at the short-run margin both are much cheaper than fossil.
The structural decline in carbon emissions must therefore have been some way short of 2% a year. A better figure would need a proper breakdown of the structural/cyclical components. A 2% trend would easily meet the 17% Waxman-Markey target in 2020 (19.4%). However, on any plausible numbers the more important later target would be missed by miles. (The Obama campaign appeared to be ignorant of compound interest, or more plausibly thought that accurate arithmetic would confuse the voters.) So current policy is inadequate and additional measures are still called for.
It is common sense, confirmed by the famous McKinsey histogram (here, page 10), that cuts in emissions get harder as you go on. For example, the natural gas contribution to electricity can’t increase for long, and would have to be reduced eventually to get near 80% cuts. Increasing the efficiency of cars, houses and data centres is easy; airplanes and cement works, not so much. However, the drop in 2009, driven by market price signals without cap-and-trade or strong regulation, suggests that for the next few years anyway the economic cost of reductions will be as low as Stern predicts.
The argument for a carbon pricing mechanism is not mitigation but simply efficiency: it’s the best way of minimising the economic burden and political intrusiveness of a transition from carbon that’s inevitable and necessary. But you can also get there by regulation and subsidy. As with health care and the killing of the public option, it’s the clueless opposition that is driving the Obama administration towards more administrative, federal, and “socialist” solutions.
The “do-nothing”, or “wait and see”, conservatives on climate change like Manzi, Lomborg and Nordhaus, who have actual arguments on their side, are swamped in the market-place of ideas by the “know-nothing” camp of pure denialists. (To be quite fair to them, they do recommend cautious action, a “slow ramp”, rather than strict BAU. Lomborg wants to spend vast sums on renewable energy R &D, Nordhaus advocates a moderate carbon tax.) In a way, this gives a rhetorical advantage to climate-change activists, since the loudest wing of the opposition has the weakest case. It’s very odd: especially as actual policies are much closer to Nordhaus’ views than to either Stern’s or Monckton’s. So which is it: are current policies an unstable political equilibrium between denialists and activists, or is there a big and influential but invisible camp of temporizers?