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On Monday, leaders from dozens of countries began meeting at the 17th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa. They might as well have stayed home.
The meeting in Durban will fail, just as all previous climate confabs have failed, to impose any meaningful limits or taxes on carbon dioxide emissions. Understanding why the Durban meeting will fail doesn’t require any deep political insight or any expertise into atmospheric physics. It only requires an appreciation for simple math and these three numbers: 28.5, 47, and 1.3 billion.
The first number represents the percentage growth in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade. Carbon-dioxide emissions have been the environmental issue of the past decade. Over that time period, Al Gore became a world-renowned figure for his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” for which he won an Oscar. In 2007, he, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), collected a Nobel Peace Prize for “informing the world of the dangers posed by climate change.” That same year, the IPCC released its fourth assessment report which declared that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.” (Emphasis in original.)
Two years later, Copenhagen became the epicenter of a world-wide media frenzy as about 5,000 journalists, along with some 100 world leaders and scores of celebrities, descended on the Danish capital to witness what was billed as the best opportunity to impose a global tax or limit on carbon dioxide. The result? Nothing, aside from promises by various countries to get serious — really serious — about carbon emissions sometime soon.
So what happened over the past decade, the very same decade during which Gore, the carbon dioxide jihadis, and the IPCC dominated the environmental debate? Global carbon-dioxide emissions rose by 28.5%.
Why was there such a huge increase? Simple: hundreds of millions of people moved out of poverty and into the modern world and in doing so, they began using significant quantities of hydrocarbons. Look at China, where emissions jumped by 123% over the past decade. China’s emissions now exceed those of the U.S. by more than two billion tons per year. Africa’s carbon-dioxide emissions jumped by 30%, Asia’s by 44%, and the Middle East’s rose by a whopping 57%. Over that same time frame, U.S. carbon emissions fell by 1.7%.
Put another way, over the past decade, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions — about 6.1 billion tons per year — could have gone to zero and yet global emissions still would have increased.
Read that last sentence again, and keep it in mind whenever you hear that the U.S. must make a massive and expensive move toward renewable energy in order to save the planet: Over the past decade, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions could have gone to zero and yet global emissions still would have increased.
The 28.5% increase in global carbon dioxide emissions is directly related to the second number, 47. Indeed, a key reason why carbon dioxide emissions have grown so rapidly over the past decade is that global demand for electricity soared (up by 36%). And for countries in the developing world, the cheapest way to generate electricity is by burning coal and lots of it. The result: over the past ten years, global coal use jumped by 47%.
Over the past decade, according to the IEA, that 47% increase in coal use meant that global coal use increased by more than the increase in natural gas, oil, and nuclear, combined. And if you believe that coal use will decline in the years ahead, think again. Even in the most optimistic scenario put forward by the IEA, coal use will likely increase by another 25 percent by 2035.
Those coal numbers bring us to the final figure, 1.3 billion. That’s the number of people around the world who don’t have access to electricity. It’s a stunning number. About 18% of all the people on the planet don’t have access to the energy commodity that the IEA says is “crucial to human development.” Just as stunning: the IEA says that 2.7 billion people – about 38% of the world’s population – don’t have access to clean cooking facilities.
The three numbers at hand – 28.5, 47, and 1.3 billion – demonstrate why the Durban meeting is another exercise in carbon-dioxide-reduction futility that will garner a few headlines and then rapidly recede behind more pressing items like the terms of Lindsay Lohan’s probation. In the meantime, global carbon dioxide emissions will continue rising as more people in places like China, India, and Vietnam gain access to electricity and mobility.
And that means one thing is certain: Regardless of whether carbon dioxide is making the planet hotter, or colder (or both) — or even if the world’s temperatures remain relatively stable – we are going need to produce a lot more energy in order to remain productive and comfortable on this planet. And over the next two to three decades, the vast majority of that new energy production will come from coal, oil, and natural gas. Why? Because they are the cheapest, most abundant, most reliable sources.
You don’t have to like it, and there are plenty of people in Durban who don’t. But that’s the reality.
Robert Bryce is the author of Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.