The virtual format President Biden used for last week’s climate summit, to which he invited some 40 countries, shielded him from any physical threat created by two attendees – “killer” Vladimir Putin, and “thug” Xi Jinping, his description of the Russian and Chinese presidents. But he did invite them to Zoom along with me, to borrow from Frank Sinatra, along with Pope Francis, Bill Gates, Boris Johnson, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdoğan, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, among others. Biden can reasonably claim that all extant views on proper governance, the consequences and urgency of rising temperatures, and the value of fossil fuels were represented. Except Trump’s.
The Summit invited the usual charges of hypocrisy by the summiteers, whose peripatetic, entourage-heavy lifestyles create extraordinary levels of carbon emissions. Examples: Uswitch, a UK-based firm, reckons that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Jaguar XJ Sentinel emits 86% more CO2 emissions per year than a Ford Fiesta, Britain’s best-selling car. Biden’s Cadillac One comes in at 123% above Ford Explorer, and SUV, while Canada’s greener-than-green Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau tools around in a vehicle producing 191% more carbon emissions than Canada’s best-selling vehicle, while his country is the only Group of 7 country to increase its emission since the Paris deal was struck. Rank has its privileges, along with its responsibilities.
Boris Johnson is planning to host a Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November, at which time he might explain why his country is developing a deep coal mine in West Cumbria – something to do with jobs. Were the British Prime Minister to convert that meeting into a virtual event such as Biden’s, he would relieve the virtue-signaling attendees from scouring the market for climate offsets in order to claim their private jets left carbon-neutral trails in their wakes.
America Is Back With More Promises
Biden’s main goal was to emphasize that when it comes to the war on climate change, “America is back” after four years in which Donald Trump retreated to the sidelines yelling “Hoax”. Importantly, America did not follow its leader to those sidelines. Mayors, governors, CEOs and others mutinied, and announced the continuation of their efforts to reduce their net carbon emissions, which are running at half those of China. The gap is even larger if carbon emissions from the hundreds of coal plants China is financing around the world is put in Xi’s column.
Biden opened the bidding for climate-change-fighter-of-the-year by committing to reducing US net emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030 (greener groups are calling for a 70% cut), almost doubling the target to which the U.S. agreed at the Paris meetings in 2015. Carbon neutrality, he said, would be reached by 2050, the same date announced by Britain, which also agreed to include international aviation and shipping in its new, lower emissions target. The President also offered $5.7 billion by 2024 to help developing countries cope with climate change; that’s double America’s previous offer but like the earlier one, which Congress never did approve, is “little more” than a promise, noted the New York Times, rather than the legislation-backed commitments of the UK and the EU.
With Pope Francis in attendance, the originally Jewish wish, “from your lips to God’s ears”, might have made Biden’s wish capable of fulfilment. But not unless congress agrees to fund the massive financial cost of reducing the social cost of warming, which is not likely. Nor is it clear that there is the political will to force the changes that would be required in every aspect of American life, private and commercial. After all, politicians are reluctant to increase taxes on gasoline, even when the price of the fuel is at low levels.
China Loves Its Coal
One problem for the President is China, America’s challenger for world leadership. Xi Jinping, presiding over the world’s largest emitter, held to his earlier position: emissions will continue to rise until 2030, while America’s will be falling, and China will not reach carbon neutrality until 2060, a decade after America. His non-concession: China will “strictly limit the increase in coal consumption” over the next five years – such consumption is set to hit a new peak this year, according to the International Energy Agency and China will continue to approve new coal projects. China will then “phase it down between 2026 and 2030. Congress knows that any positive effect America can have on global emissions levels will be swallowed up by China’s increasing emissions, never mind the output of the coal plants China is financing around the world.
Making matters worse is China’s dominance of the materials and manufacturing capacity needed to meet rising demand for solar panels, on which products the Biden plan relies. The Chinese regime has poured billions in subsidies into the sector, permitting Chinese manufacturers to price their panels at levels low enough to drive U.S. manufacturers out of business. To make matters worse, The New York Times last week reported that panel production increasingly is centered in a province rich in Uyghur forced laborers and coal resources to fuel needed electricity supplies. It would take more than the President’s obviously sincere concern about global warming – “A moment of peril …. Unchecked, it is going to actually bake this planet…. A moral imperative….” – to persuade congress to send billions to China to support its solar-panel industry and by extension its military build-up.
Beware the Nimbys
Another problem is the enemy within, not-in-my-back-yard environmentalists who want a greener world so long as they aren’t forced to look at offshore wind farms or high voltage transmission towers. Jesse Jenkins, at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, participating in a study favorable to the Biden target, concludes after a massive study, “The current power grid took 150 years to build. Now, to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we have to build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that. It’s a huge amount of change.”
So it is. Immediately before the Summit, the Biden administration cancelled two offshore Long Island wind farms for a variety of reasons, one of which The Wall Street Journal believes was a complaint from the Wall Street crowd that vacations in the toney Hamptons, in sight of the wind farm. The NIMBY crowd has long experience with decades-long court cases aimed at preventing any intrusion on their environments, and the ability to finance them.
Carbon Credits But Beware Brazil
Still, not all is lost, for two reasons. First, Biden can move America towards his goal by using what are called carbon offsets. “Zero net emissions,” or carbon neutrality, does not mean no emissions at all. Rather, it means that any emissions of greenhouse gasses (CO2 and methane) will be offset by other actions, such as planting trees or paying tree growers an annual fee to leave their carbon-absorbing timber standing; investing in renewable sources of energy; developing carbon-capture technologies such as those on which Exxon plans to spend billions to supplement public funds; sharing technologies with developing countries; buying carbon credits from other companies that have reduced their emissions, or by regulation.
Markets for these credits, although open to fraudulent claims, are becoming increasingly robust, although it is uncertain that anyone is willing to rely on Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, to end deforestation of the Amazon if the international community agrees to his demand for $20 billion as compensation. Conceptually, some such demand would be a reasonable sale of carbon credits if the money went to create jobs for the 23-25 million people who live in the Amazon, and for whom deforestation is necessary to their meager livelihoods. But Marcio Astrini, who heads the Climate Observatory, an NGO, warns that the Brazilian President cannot be trusted to use the money for the economic benefit of people who live in the Amazon. “He wants new money with no real constraints….This is not a trustworthy government…,” says Astrini, a view supported by Carlos vf3Rittl of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany.
Border Taxes Can Help
The second source of optimism came from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, she of vaccine procurement fame. The EU plans to impose a border tax on the carbon content of goods it imports. China’s “dirty” exports that keep its factories humming and its masses from wondering whether the trade of freedom for prosperity is worthwhile, would be especially hard hit. Were America to follow suit, China would be forced to cut emissions or see the international competitive advantage enjoyed by 40% of its exports sharply reduced. Oddly, a border tax, which would help to reduce the rampaging deficit, is a weapon Biden refuses to deploy. Just as he refuses to support pricing carbon, making polluters pay, despite the fact that most economists recommend it as a way to reduce emissions in the most efficient way. Resources for the Future, a non-partisan think tank, says that the U.S. could cut its CO2 emissions 54% by 2030 by adopting a carbon tax that starts at $40 per ton and rises 5% annually. Perhaps as moral suasion and regulation prove unable to produce the changes Biden needs – including an increase in the portion of battery-powered vehicles sold from 2% to 66%, and the role of renewable source of energy from 20% to 50% by 2030, among other things – carbon taxes will get another look.