The Copenhagen Conundrum

Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg has made famous the phrase “Copenhagen Consensus” which posits that money aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions would be better spent addressing other health and welfare challenges, like preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Well, now that thousands of politicians and environmentalists are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss ways to achieve drastic cuts in global carbon dioxide emissions, it’s time to recognize a new term: the Copenhagen Conundrum. The conundrum is obvious: given that billions of people are still living in dire energy poverty, how can world leaders expect any significant reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions, particularly when there are no viable substitutes for hydrocarbons, which now provide 88% of the world’s primary energy?

The Copenhagen Conundrum can easily be understood by considering these two facts: 22% of the world’s population doesn’t have electricity, and nearly 40% still relies on traditional biomass – straw, wood, or dung – for their cooking needs.

The issues of energy poverty and population are closely intertwined. And that connection can be seen by looking at the world’s six most populous countries. They are, in descending order of population: China, India, the US, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. The energy disparity among the residents of these countries is stark. The US, with about 300 million residents, consumes almost as much energy as the other five most-populous countries – let’s call them the Big Five —  combined. The total population of the Big Five – Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan – is about 3 billion, or about 10 times that of the US. And yet the average resident of the Big Five lives in  energy poverty. The 3 billion residents of the Big Five consume, on average,  about 0.66 gallons of oil equivalent per day, or about one-tenth as much energy as the average American.

Per-Capita Energy Use In the Six Most-Populous Countries,
In Gallons of Oil Equivalent Per Day

China:         1.26
India:          0.31
US:             6.32
Brazil:         0.97
Indonesia:     0.44
Pakistan:       0.32

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2009.

A glance at those numbers shows why the leaders of developing countries are so reluctant to agree to any kind of cap on their carbon dioxide emissions. The simple truth is that as energy consumption increases, so does wealth. While various promoters of “green” energy discuss the potential breakthroughs in alternatives sources like wind and solar, the reality is that 88% of the world’s commercial primary energy is provided by coal, oil, and natural gas. And as much as politicians and environmentalists might like to change that percentage, there are no other sources of energy that can match hydrocarbons when it comes to the Four Imperatives: power density, energy density, cost and scale. Furthermore, barring some miraculous technological breakthrough, there won’t be a significant change in the world’s need for hydrocarbons over the next two to five decades.

But just for grins, let’s assume a technological breakthrough occurs that can displace hydrocarbons. And while it may be a miraculous technology, it must be ultra-cheap and it must be dispersed around the world. It will also have to be implemented on a massive scale – a scale big enough to supplant the world’s hunger for hydrocarbons, which now averages nearly 200 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Put another way, that’s approximately equal to the total daily oil output of more than 23 Saudi Arabias.

The world’s two most-populous countries, China and India, have made it abundantly clear that they will not accept any hard limits on their ability to emit carbon dioxide. And other developing countries are doing the same. The reasons are obvious: too many of their people live in energy poverty, and in particular, they lack electricity.

The IEA recently declared that  “electricity is, in practice, indispensable for certain basic activities, such as lighting, refrigeration and the running of household appliances, and cannot easily be replaced by other forms of energy.  Individuals’ access to electricity is one of the most clear and un-distorted indication of a country’s energy poverty status.”

The leaders of developing countries recognize the essentiality of electricity and what that means with regard to any emissions caps. You may recall that in June, just a few days after the House of Representatives passed its cap and trade bill, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said that India “will not accept any emission-reduction target – period. This is a non-negotiable stand.” The Indian leader went on, saying that “there is no way India is going to accept any emission reduction target, period, between now and the Copenhagen meeting and thereafter.”

Or consider the words of Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian academic who chairs the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In July, Pachauri told reporters that nearly 40% of his fellow Indians do not have access to electricity. “Can you imagine 400 million people who do not have a light bulb in their homes?” he asked. He went on to make it clear that India will be burning plenty of its own coal in order to produce electricity. “You cannot, in a democracy, ignore some of these realities and as it happens with the resources of coal that India has, we really don’t have any choice but to use coal.”

Like India, China is relying heavily on its domestic coal resources. And while both China and India have recently agreed to set targets on reducing the carbon intensity of their economies, those targets will not actually cut their carbon dioxide emissions.

The simple truth is that the brouhaha over Climategate doesn’t matter. In fact, the entire battle over climate science – and in particular, the arguments over what concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide should be seen as ideal – is largely a waste of time. Given that global policymakers are convinced that carbon dioxide is bad, the most important question they must address is: then what? Put another way, what’s the policy response going to be?

With no ready substitute for hydrocarbons, the answer to those two questions —  then what? and what’s the right policy? – should be obvious: nothing. That is, despite all the hew and cry over the need for some dramatic political agreement at Copenhagen, nothing of substance will happen because too many people around the world are still living in energy poverty. And energy poverty brings with it all of the ills that come with poverty: disease, hunger, lack of potable water, lack of education, and other societal ills.

In short, the Copenhagen Consensus and the Copenhagen Conundrum are two sides of the same coin. Global leaders should give up their fixation on  cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Significant cuts will not happen. Instead, they should be focusing their efforts on making energy cheap, abundant, and as clean as possible.

ROBERT BRYCE’s latest book, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence”recently came out in paperback.


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