Climate Policy Debate Heats Up In Dubai

Eight years ago, 194 nations and the EU agreed in Paris to adopt policies to limit the rise in the earth’s temperature to 1.5°-2°C above levels existing before industrialization took millions out of poverty. John Kerry, the U.S. climate czar, tossed a gift to photographers by having his two-year old granddaughter perched on his knee while he signed the deal on America’s behalf. As the child approaches her teen years, the time for a reckoning has arrived.

Later this month the world’s oil and gas big wheels will trundle to Expo City, Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, which accounts for 21 per cent and rising of global production of, er, natural gas, there to attend COP28. Which stands for, hold your breath, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This is not the place to review all the data on the release of greenhouse gasses since the release of political hot air in Paris. Suffice it to say that few countries – no members of the G20 – have met their reduction commitments, while Russia has increased its emissions more than it said it would according to a reliable data source, Climate Action Tracker. Those with serious concerns about the consequences of warming seem to agree that whatever has been done since Paris is insufficient to meet the agreed targets. The World Meteorological Organization modeling group expects the 1.5° target set in Paris to be temporarily exceeded within the next five years.

As policy took shape post-Paris, many industrialized countries, including ours, settled on efforts to sharply curtail, or better still, eliminate the use of fossil fuels; get ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles that produce 29 per cent of US greenhouse gas emissions off the roads and replace them with electric vehicles (EVs); and increase reliance on solar and wind power to generate the rising amounts of electricity to be transported by a rebuilt grid to a nation already running short of electric power. In America’s case, implementation was suspended when President Trump withdrew America from the Paris accord, a move President Biden reversed on the famous Day 1 that all candidates choose for actions that do not require approval of congress.

Alas, each of those policy pillars proved more ornament for politicians than support for sound policy. President Biden did his best to rid America of its oil industry by denying permits for drilling, and discouraging investment in the industry. But US oil production has risen by 40 per cent to a record level since Paris, and the world’s big oil producers plan to extract twice the amount of fossil fuels by 2030 as would be consistent with preventing further warming. COP28’s host, the UAE, is planning a 25 per cent increase in oil production capacity by 2030.

A necessary adjunct to a less-oil policy has been to encourage an alternative means of transport. Many greens’ first choice is public transit: Chuck Schumer, not seen recently on an NYC subway station, proudly pushed through $39 billion for the nation’s transit systems, never mind years of experience showing that is not convenient for tool-toting Jane the Plumber or safe for most New Yorkers.

Enter EVs, along with a variety of taxpayer subsidies to encourage consumers to abandon their gas guzzling vehicles, and vehicle makers to produce the emissions-free vehicles. There will be subsidies of $12 billion to get auto companies to switch factories to the production of EVs, still more to subsidize the production of batteries. Consumers will receive a $7,500 for buying an EV made largely of US materials.

Three problems: First, EVs rely on some of the most environmentally damaging materials on, or under, the earth. If the environmental costs of mining and processing materials such as cobalt and lithium, and the toxic effect on groundwater from battery disposal is counted in, as serious environmentalists now insist, EVs may prove more  damaging to the planet than ICE vehicles.

Second, China dominates the production of batteries and materials needed to make them, as well as solar equipment. Increased dependence on that country is not exactly a strategic goal of Western democracies.

Third, consumers suffering from range anxiety don’t want these vehicles, at least not in large numbers. Dealers are offering deep discounts of as much as one-third off list price for EVs, which linger on lots twice as long as conventional vehicles. Ford, GM, Tesla and Honda recently scaled back plans to invest in EV factories. It seems that early adapters were not representative of the broader car-buying population: the typical owner of a taxpayer-subsidized Tesla is a white male homeowner with an annual household income over $130,000.

Which brings us to the final policy failure. EVs are powered by, no surprise, electricity. Some 60 percent of US electricity is generated from fossil fuels, making EVs partially reliant on those greenhouse gas emitters. That’s one reason green policy aims at increasing reliance on wind and solar to generate electricity. But those sources are proving more costly than originally thought. Billions of dollars are being written off as uneconomic offshore wind projects are cancelled:

  • Danish energy developer Orsted scrapped two projects off the coast of New Jersey, and wrote off $5.6 billion; developers have canceled contracts for three projects that would have provided power to Massachusetts and Connecticut; London-based BP is writing off $540 million on three planned projects off New York; Siemens is seeking government bailouts because of problems in its wind turbine unit. Britain’s latest offshore wind auction failed to attract a single bidder.

And the Biden administration is adding billions of dollars of new tax breaks to the failing solar industry’s tariff protection to keep the sun shining on that industry.

In addition, existing electric grids needed to carry power from wind and solar sites to consumers are not up to the job. BloombergNEF experts estimate $160 billion will be spent by utilities this year to green and fortify the present grid, with billions more to come to create a stable, reliable system with sufficient capacity to meet consumers’ needs. Construction will require overcoming environmentalists’ use of the courts to prevent construction of the 50-150 foot tall towers needed to carry the wires, with some litigation consuming more than a decade.

That is where the war on climate change stands in America. Fossil fuel production is rising rather than falling, EVs are not top of consumers’ wish lists, the grid cannot move power from some wind and solar installations to consumers, battery manufacture and disposal are damaging to the environment, and the high price of many green consumer products at a time of inflation-straitened finances is militating against their adoption.

It would seem that a major policy rethink is in order. That would include consideration of efficient amelioration efforts, such as raising sidewalks in Miami, closer consideration of the role of non-emitting nuclear power, reform of permitting policies for high-voltage transmission, development of substitutes for the most environmentally damaging of the materials used to produce batteries, and much more. That will require a reallocation of resources from the proven policy failures to those more likely to succeed.

Adopting policies in haste, in the warm glow of self-congratulatory quaffs of champagne and under pressure from advocacy groups is not a good idea. Better to have taken Ronald Reagan’s advice for a while, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”