The 23rd annual Conference of the Parties (COP 23) is currently meeting in Bonn, Germany, to work on a rulebook for implementing the Paris Agreement. Since many of the Paris pledges remain fairly opaque and the specific policies the countries will take to meet them are vague, a major feature of the conference will be to obtain transparency in measuring, reporting and verifying each country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since the Paris Agreement does not include sanctions for countries that do not meet their agreed-to targets, peer pressure is the main mechanism for ensuring that governments abide by their commitments. The final rule book is due at the end of 2018 and is subject to approval at the next climate summit in Katowice, Poland.[i]
President Trump has vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement[ii] because it is punitive toward the United States relative to other countries. And to this dismay of many attendees, the United States has promoted the use of coal, natural gas and nuclear energy at the conference and promoted the use of American energy resources to help poor countries meet their electricity needs.[iii] Countries throughout Asia and Africa are building coal plants to provide energy for millions of their citizens living without electricity. Despite the inroads renewable energy is making, they cannot provide the amount of energy that traditional sources can provide to help people to rise out of poverty.[iv]
Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Country Commitments
Carbon dioxide emissions, the largest component of greenhouse gases, have been declining in the United States, mainly due to the shale gas renaissance. Between 2005 and 2016, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions declined by 12 percent. However, China’s carbon dioxide emissions over the same period increased by 50 percent, surpassing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2006. (See graph below.)
China’s commitment to the Paris Agreement is to allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise until 2030, when they are expected to peak. China’s emissions are projected to rise approximately 3.5 percent this year due partly to poor hydroelectric output. While China’s emissions are allowed to increase, the Obama administration pledged that the United States would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
India, the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, pledged to install more renewable energy and to lower its carbon intensity—the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of gross domestic product. It will do so while allowing total emissions to increase through 2030, similar to China. India’s carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase 2 percent this year—slower than the 6 percent annual growth seen over the last decade. India still has 240 million citizens without electricity and needs to use inexpensive coal to provide reliable power to them.
Carbon dioxide emissions worldwide are increasing as the graph below shows, though their rate of growth has slowed in recent years. That may be temporary because global carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase by 2 percent this year.[v] Global carbon dioxide emissions are continuing to grow despite investment in renewable energy.
Renewable Energy and Decarbonization
Over the past 10 years, governments and private investors have together spent $2 trillion on infrastructure to produce electricity from wind and solar power. According to Environmental Progress, after adjusting for inflation, that level of investment exceeds the total cost of all nuclear plants built or under construction. In recent years, renewable capacity has outpaced all other sources—including coal, natural gas and nuclear power.[vi] Solar and wind capacity installed in 2015 was more than 10 times what the International Energy Agency had forecast a decade before.
However, as seen from the graph above, this investment in wind and solar capacity has not brought about much decarbonization. Integrating renewable energy into the grid requires large investments in electricity transmission—to move power from intermittently windy and sunny places to places where power is consumed. It also requires fossil fuel plants to be ready to operate when there is no wind or sun. These back-up plants operate at levels far below their maximum capacity, increasing their operating costs and making them uneconomic.
Further, these intermittent renewable sources can drive wholesale electricity prices down to the point where they force back-up power off the grid. There are times when intermittent renewable generators flood the grid with power, reducing the price of electricity to negative levels due to tax credits, thereby forcing back-up power off the grid. Or, if the back-up power cannot shut down quickly, it must pay for the grid to accept its electricity.
Despite some countries making progress in integrating wind and solar energy into their electricity mix, their carbon dioxide emissions have actually increased. Germany, for example, is now generating 34 percent of its power from non-carbon sources (hydro, nuclear, wind and solar), but its carbon dioxide emissions have increased in the last two years as the country is closing nuclear plants and backing up its intermittent renewables with coal. Germany’s residential electricity prices have skyrocketed to pay for the new renewable capacity and are three times those in the United States.
The United States is ahead of many countries in reducing its carbon dioxide emissions. That result is largely because of increased generation from inexpensive natural gas rather than from constructing wind and solar generators that produce much less energy per unit of capacity. While the United Nations may think that the Paris Agreement will eventually reduce global carbon dioxide emissions and that rulebooks will keep countries to their commitments, the truth of the matter is that many countries are moving toward industrialization and need inexpensive coal power to bring their citizens electricity and grow their economies.
[i] Washington Post, Nations to work on curbing climate change despite Trump, November 3, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/countries-to-work-on-curbing-climate-change-despite-trump/2017/11/03/615e4682-c0b9-11e7-9294-705f80164f6e_story.html?utm_term=.eac1785eab06
[ii] The New York Times, Trump Adviser Tells Ministers U.S. Will Leave Paris Climate Accord, September 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/climate/trump-adviser-un-paris-climate-agreement.html?_r=0
[iii] The New York Times, Trump Team to Promote Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power at Bonn Climate Talks, November 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/climate/trump-coal-cop23-bonn.html
[iv] New York Times, Protesters Jeer as Trump Team Promotes Coal at U.N. Climate Talks, November 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/13/climate/climate-coal-united-nations-bonn.html?emc=edit_th_20171114&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=63692790
[v] New York Times, CO2 Emissions Were Flat for Three Years. Now They’re Rising Again, November 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/13/climate/co2-emissions-rising-again.html?_r=0
[vi] New York Times, Wind and Solar Power Advance, but Carbon Refuses to Retreat, November 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/business/climate-carbon-renewables.html?emc=edit_th_20171108&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=63692790