Why Can't We Just Get Along On Climate Change?!

the Plug #10 | On International Climate Talks

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Since 1972, the United Nations has organized semi-annual conferences focused on addressing climate change.

At each conference, hundreds of world leaders have come together to discuss how best to reduce global emissions. And yet, every year since 1972, the state of the earth’s climate has seemingly continued to worsen.

So today, we’re trying to understand – why is it so hard for the international community to collaborate effectively on climate change?

The answer lies, in part, in the differing priorities of countries globally. No two countries demonstrate this reality better than the world’s largest emitters: the U.S. and China.

This week’s edition has 4 sections:

  • A Meeting of the Climate Change Minds 🧠

  • The World’s Two Largest Emitters 🚬

  • The Energy (and Emissions) Advantage 💡

  • The Climate Has no Borders 🌎


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A Meeting of the Climate Change Minds 🧠

Later this year in November, politicians and policymakers from around the world will converge on Glasgow, Scotland for COP26: the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference.

The objective of this year’s conference - to facilitate international cooperation in reducing global emissions and combat climate change - is not unique from the past 25 conferences. But for anyone questioning what’s at stake this year, the COP26 website displays an ominous warning:

“Many believe [COP26] to be the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control.”

Unfortunately, as history shows, effective global collaboration on climate change is as challenging as drawing water from a stone. This task is complicated by several interconnected factors, each of which differs amongst the 190+ countries that will be in attendance at COP26:

  • National living standards

  • Access to energy and electricity

  • Foreign and domestic policy objectives

  • The development of new technologies

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For every politician globally, the incentives which guide their decision-making are unique. It’s those incentives that dictate whether climate change is viewed as a top priority, or simply an afterthought amongst other, more pressing issues.


The World’s Largest Emitter(s) 🚬

Despite the diversity and multinationalism of COP26’s attendants, the eyes of the world will be focused on only two countries: the U.S., and China.

Why them, you ask?

Well, according to the World Economic Forum, China and the U.S. collectively generated over 40% of global emissions in 2017. And as China’s emissions have continued to grow post-2017, so has that number.

These two countries also continue to wrestle for global supremacy. And, as a result, contention and animosity between the two superpowers have grown in recent years. Amidst the deterioration of U.S.-China relations, finding common ground on climate change will be as challenging as ever.

So, Who Emits the Most?

In 2005, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter.

China’s emissions continued to rise thereafter, while American emissions slowly began to decline. Fast forward to 2020, and China generated roughly twice as much CO2 emission as did the U.S.

China’s emissions are also expected to continue rising through 2030.

In the arena of geopolitics, pointing fingers at international opponents is an easy way to deflect blame. 

For the politicians and media organizations who cater to Americans, growth in China’s emissions may seem like an easy scapegoat for worsening global climate change.

Unfortunately, that simplistic view discounts the complexity of the world in which we live.

Let’s explore some other metrics.

Another Metric: CO2 per Capita

Would it make sense to claim that obesity in China is more problematic than in the U.S. because the total body weight of China’s population is greater?

No! Of course not.

China’s population (~1.5bn) is ~5x larger than the U.S population (~330mm).

Given the dramatic difference in population size, it should be obvious that the sum total of China’s body weight is greater. Why then, should a comparison between each country’s total emissions make sense?

To account for the difference in population, let’s take a look at per-capita emissions.

Notably, since the 1800s, per capita emissions in the U.S. have dramatically outpaced China’s. And, despite the outsized growth of China’s emissions since 2000, U.S. emissions per capita remained ~2x greater than China’s in 2018.

Hmm…. How the turns table.

One More Metric: Cumulative Emissions

Another method for comparing country-specific emissions is by look at the cumulative emissions generated since the pre-industrial era (when global emissions were negligible).

If the earth theoretically has a fixed and finite carbon budget, then emissions from the past should be equally relevant to emissions generated today.

In countries where industrialization was first to take root, cumulative emissions today are much higher than in countries that were slower to industrialize.

Which countries were the first to industrialize? Mostly those located in North America, and Europe.

From 1750 through 2018, the U.S. generated ~26% of cumulative total emissions globally. During that same period, China generated ~13%.

Wow.

From the perspective of less developed countries, there’s a valid argument to be made that the majority of past emissions don’t belong to them. And so, should China be held responsible for solving a problem that more developed countries created?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is above my pay grade.


The Energy (and Emissions) Advantage 💡

Where do political priorities and incentives come into this debate?

To understand the conflicting priorities of American and Chinese politicians, it’s important to understand the relationship between a country’s general societal well-being (using GDP per capita as a proxy) and its energy consumption.

One of the main reasons that countries like the U.S. have higher living standards today, is because of greater energy consumption in the past.

The chart above highlights the relationship between annual energy consumption and GDP per capita. Where it falls short, however, is in highlighting the cumulative energy usage that allowed countries like the U.S. to gradually move from the left-hand side to the right of that chart.

In 2020, U.S. GDP per capita was ~US$63.5k; more than six times greater than that of China at ~US$10.5k. It should come then as no surprise that one of China’s main priorities is to continue closing the gap between its domestic living standards, and those of countries abroad.

To do so, they’re going to need a lot of energy.

Enter Emissions, Stage Left

Let’s quickly refresh our understanding of the relationship between energy and emissions:

  • Historically, our energy systems relied predominantly on fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) which are carbon-based.

  • The reason why is that fossil fuels are globally accessible, extremely reliable, and relatively inexpensive compared to alternatives.

  • The result is that, historically, energy consumption and carbon emissions have gone hand in hand.

.

This helps to explain why China’s emissions will continue to rise.

They’re following the U.S. playbook, which proved that through greater energy consumption, any country can increase its national living standards.

Unfortunately, rising emissions are an unintended consequence.

Hold Up - What About Clean Energy?

Innovation has certainly facilitated the deployment of less carbon-intensive energy sources. Wind and solar technologies are as productive, and inexpensive, as they’ve ever been.

And so, for countries with higher living standards today, the costly decision to begin transitioning away from fossil fuels seems increasingly feasible.

But when it comes to the price, availability and reliability of energy sources, fossil fuels remain king.

In less-developed countries, where access to reliable electricity is a luxury, it makes sense that a top priority is to continue building out reliable electrical grids. In that context, though, concern for emissions and climate change is justifiably an afterthought.

All that to say, the political incentives and resulting priorities for each attending country at COP26 will differ dramatically.

While climate change may be a top priority in some countries, we should accept that other countries have more pressing challenges to address.


The Climate Has No Borders 🌎

The jury is still out on whether anything productive will take place at COP26.

While it would seem that North American politicians are finally prioritizing climate change, it’s important to understand that not all countries have the same priorities.

Fortunately, Canadians and Americans don’t need to wait for the rest of the world to get on board the climate change mitigation train. We can continue to take steps towards reducing our national emissions, which are amongst the highest in the world on a per capita basis.

It’s also worth remembering that UN-facilitated speeches and handshakes won’t reduce emissions. That much should be clear from historic “achievements” like the establishment of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, or the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Maybe, just maybe, COP26 will be an opportunity for developed nations globally to turn promises and rhetoric into tangible action that will actually make a difference.

As COP26’s slogan goes: The Climate Has No Borders. And it’s undeniably true that no country alone will win in a fight against global climate change.

But we need to start somewhere. How about with North American leadership?


If you want to learn more about international climate legislation, here are some of the best resources I’ve found on the topic:

  • Website: UN Climate Change Conference 2021 (United Nations)

  • Article: Why US-China Competition Hinders Cooperation (Politico)

  • Animation: Evolution of Population & GDP (Visual Capitalist)

  • Article: What’s Causing Climate Change in 10 Charts (Vox)