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Why Soaring Energy Use in Developed Nations Continues to Crush Hopes to Curb Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Vietnam’s War on Carbon Limits


Given the parlous state of the US economy, discussions about climate change, carbon dioxide emissions, and cap-and-trade schemes have largely disappeared from the political discussion.

That’s a good thing. Why? Even if the US were to launch an attempt to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050, as President Barack Obama has said it should, the rest of the world will keep using carbon-based fuels, and lots of them, thereby swamping any reductions that might happen here. But don’t take my word for it. You need only look at the latest data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy to understand that reality. To underscore that point, let’s try a short pop quiz.

Which country which has had the biggest percentage growth in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade?

A: Vietnam.

Next question: Which country has had the biggest percentage growth in electricity generation?

A: Vietnam.

Which country had biggest growth in coal use?

A: Vietnam

Indeed, over the past decade, only one country, China, had faster growth in primary energy consumption than did Vietnam. And Vietnam, where some 58,000 US soldiers died, stands as a proxy for many countries in the developing world. As those countries grow their economies — their energy use and their carbon dioxide emissions — the hope for any kind of a global cap, or tax, on carbon emissions becomes ever more remote.

To be sure, Vietnam’s energy use is a tiny fraction of that used by countries like China and the US. In 2010, Vietnam’s 90 million inhabitants consumed about 900,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. That’s a rounding error when compared to China’s consumption of nearly 49 million barrels of oil equivalent per day or US consumption of nearly 46 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.

Put another way, the average resident of Vietnam now consumes about 0.4 gallons of oil equivalent per day. The average American consumes about 6.3 gallons of oil equivalent per day, while the average Chinese uses 1.3 gallons of oil equivalent per day. In fact, the average Vietnamese now consumes more energy on a daily basis than does the average Pakistani.

But with an average income of less than $1,200 per year, Vietnam is still racing to catch up to the rest of Asia. And with an annual GDP growth rate of nearly 7%, Vietnam has every reason to continue burning as much oil, coal, and natural gas as it possibly can. (1)

Vietnam represents a whole class of fast-growing, populous countries where energy use is growing ferociously and that’s resulting in more carbon dioxide emissions ? 33.1 trillion tons in 2010 alone, an increase of 28% over 2001 numbers.

Let me repeat that: over the past decade, global carbon dioxide emissions increased by 28%.

That huge surge in emissions occurred during the same decade that Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Prize, an Emmy, and an Oscar, for his work on the movie, An Inconvenient Truth.  During that same decade, high-profile, heavily publicized meetings were held in Copenhagen and Cancun, where, finally, world leaders were supposed to agree on something, anything, that would stop the world from using hydrocarbons.

Alas, the Vietnamese never got the memo. Or maybe they just haven’t heard Gore’s speeches. Here are the numbers: Over the past decade, Vietnam’s oil use jumped by about 82%, following only Qatar (202%) and China (86%). Over the past decade, coal consumption in Vietnam jumped by 175%, outstripping the percentage growth in Indonesia (134%) and China (128%). And nearly all of that coal is being used to produce electrons.

Over the past decade, Vietnam’s electricity generation increased by a whopping 227%, the fastest growth on the planet. Again, the total amount of electricity used in Vietnam ? about 100 terawatt-hours — remains miniscule when compared to US consumption of 4,326 terawatt-hours. But the essentiality of electricity to modernity is incontrovertible. The countries that can produce cheap, abundant, reliable electricity can grow their economies, educate their citizens and pull their people out of poverty. And those that can’t, can’t. And that’s why all of the past ? and all of the future meetings of the UNFCCC ? will result in failure to put a hard cap or effective tax on global carbon dioxide: the developing countries know that limiting their access to hydrocarbons will necessarily retard the growth of their economies.

Look at the rest of Asia. Even if we forget for a moment about the 2.1 billion people living in China and India, we can see countries like Indonesia, where electricity generation has increased by nearly 64% over the past decade. Or consider Thailand where electricity use has jumped by 55%. Or consider Egypt, where electricity use is up 79%. That has meant big increases in carbon dioxide emissions. Over the past decade, Indonesia’s carbon dioxide emissions increased by 40%, Thailand’s jumped by 51% and Egypt’s grew by 53%.

In December, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in Durban, South Africa to hold yet another climate meeting. And it will fail just as all of its predecessors have failed.

Why? Coal use is soaring. The latest BP data shows that over the past decade, global coal use is up 47%, that’s faster growth than what was seen in electricity generation (up 36%), natural gas use (up 30%), and oil consumption (up 13%). Environmentalists around the world love to vilify coal. But for countries like Vietnam, Pakistan, China, and others, coal keeps the lights on. That’s certainly true here in the US, but over the past decade, domestic coal consumption has fallen by 5%.

Thus far, I’ve given you a lot of percentages.  But focus, please, on these two: 27% and 28%. Since 2001, global energy use is up by 27% and carbon dioxide emissions are up 28%. Put another way, over the last decade, global energy use increased by about 53 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, that’s equal to about six Saudi Arabias’ worth of daily oil output. Energy use is soaring as more people from Hanoi to Hangzhou move into the modern world. And that means that huge cuts in carbon dioxide emissions ? by 80% as Obama claims the US must ? simply will not happen.

Like it or not, the world economy runs on hydrocarbons ? coal, oil, and natural gas. And that will remain true for many decades to come. Energy transitions happen over decades or centuries, not years. Countries like Vietnam, China, and India, will never agree to any tax or limit on carbon dioxide. Nor does it make much sense at all to impose heavy levies on the US, and other developed countries. Why? Well, over the last decade, US carbon dioxide emissions fell ? by 1.7%.

Every once in a while, we need to focus on the numbers and put aside the hype. The scale of current global energy use — about 241 million barrels of oil equivalent per day — is the same as 28 Saudi Arabias of energy production. The great cities of the world, whether it’s Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancun, or Durban, run on highly processed forms of energy:  electricity, ultra-low-sulfur motor fuel, and natural gas. And they need lots of it.

Global leaders should give up their fixation on  cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Significant cuts will not happen voluntarily, anywhere. Instead, leaders should be focusing on providing as much cheap, abundant, dispatchable power to their citizens as possible. And to see how that’s happening in the developing world, we need only look at Hanoi.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His fourth book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, was recently issued in paperback.