Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work

World leaders seem to have their minds made up regarding what will fix world CO2 emissions problems. Their list includes taxes on gasoline consumption, more general carbon taxes, cap and trade programs, increased efficiency in automobiles, greater focus on renewables, and more natural gas usage.

Unfortunately, we live in a world economy with constrained oil supply. Because of this, the chosen approaches have a tendency to backfire if some countries adopt them, and others do not. But even if everyone adopts them, it is not at all clear that they will provide the promised benefits.

Figure 1. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. If emissions had risen at the average rate that they did during the 1987 to 1997 period (about 1% per year), emissions in 2011 would be 18% lower than they actually were. While there were many other things going on at the same time, the much higher rise in emissions in recent years is not an encouraging sign.

The standard fixes don’t work for several reasons:

1. In an oil-supply constrained world, if a few countries reduce their oil consumption, the big impact is to leave more oil for the countries that don’t. Oil price may drop a tiny amount, but on a world-wide basis, pretty much the same amount of oil will be extracted, and nearly all of it will be consumed.

2. Unless there is a high tax on imported products made with fossil fuels, the big impact of a carbon tax is to send manufacturing to countries without a carbon tax, such as China and India. These countries are likely to use a far higher proportion of coal in their manufacturing than OECD countries would, and this change will tend to increase world CO2 emissions. Such a change will also tend to raise the standard of living of citizens in the countries adding manufacturing, further raising emissions. This change will also tend to reduce the number of jobs available in OECD countries.

3. The only time when increasing natural gas usage will actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions is if it replaces coal consumption. Otherwise it adds to carbon emissions, but at a lower rate than other fossil fuels, relative to the energy provided.

4. Substitutes for oil, including renewable fuels, are ways of increasing consumption of coal and natural gas over what they would be in the absence of renewable fuels, because they act as  add-ons to world oil supply, rather than as true substitutes for oil. Even in cases where they are theoretically more efficient, they still tend to raise carbon emissions in absolute terms, by raising the production of coal and natural gas needed to produce them.

5. Even using more biomass as fuel does not appear to be a solution. Recent work by noted scientists suggests that ramping up the use of biomass runs the risk of pushing the world past a climate change tipping point.

It is really unfortunate that the standard fixes work the way they do, because many of the proposed fixes do have good points. For example, if oil supply is limited, available oil can be shared far more equitably if people drive small fuel-efficient vehicles. The balance sheet of an oil importing nation looks better if citizens of that nation conserve oil. But we are kidding ourselves if we think these fixes will actually do much to solve the world’s CO2 emissions problem.

If we really want to reduce world CO2 emissions, we need to look at reducing world population, reducing world trade, and making more “essential” goods and services locally.  It is doubtful that many countries will volunteer to use these approaches, however.  It seems likely that Nature will ultimately provide its own solution, perhaps working through high oil prices and weaknesses in the world financial system.

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