The West's Greenhouse Gas Emissions Only Matter a Little
But our climate policies matter a lot
Americans have a hard time accepting that we’re not always at the center of things. I’m susceptible to it; I get furious when I have to put my address into an online form, and the drop-down menu for “country” doesn’t list “United States” first. Really? You’re seriously going to list these D-list countries before the country that went to the moon, or that at least convincingly faked it pre-CGI, which is still pretty impressive? Come on, Etsy, I’m buying a velvet portrait of Dolly Parton -- what fucking country do you think I’m from?
Maybe that’s why Americans sometimes don’t seem to realize that climate change isn’t really about us. The Green New Deal, had it happened instead of being defeated by a narrow 57-0 margin, would have sought to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions to zero within a ten year timeframe. This may be a hot take, but if that had happened…so what? Our net GHG emissions are about 11 percent of the global total and shrinking fast as a share of the whole. I’m reluctant to bring this up, because “fuck it, it’s not up to us, let’s get drunk and crank the AC” is an argument made by climate change defeatists everywhere in the world. That’s not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that how much we reduce our emissions matters less than how we reduce them.
A recent article in The Economist brings things into perspective. The fantastic work done by this article is to take the widely-varying pledges made in the Paris Accord and plot them on a single graph. It lets us see who promised what -- here’s what they came up with:
The first thing to note about this graph is that the dotted lines are pledges, so I’m taking them with a grain of salt big enough to crush a buffalo. I mean, if China misses its goal, what are people going to do -- vote Xi Jinping out? The idea that any politician anywhere in the world might suffer significant political damage for missing their pledge is ridiculous; people don’t often take to the streets with signs that say “Treaty Abrogation Harms Our Credibility!” and “Sacrifices NOW!” The political danger comes from policies that raise energy prices or alter lifestyles, not from being President Fun Times who tells people they can do whatever they want.
The second thing to notice is that China and India aren’t even pretending that their emissions will trend downward in the near future. If everyone meets their pledges, in 2030, China will emit more than twice as much as the US and the EU combined. At that point, China apparently plans to pull a lever labeled “magic”, which will take their emissions to zero over the next 30 years. India’s pledge is that their emissions will almost double in the next decade, which is a bit like starting a weight loss club and having one member’s pledge be to lock themselves inside a strudel factory until they’re the size of a jet engine.
GHG emissions in the 21st century are mostly going to come from the developing world. Here are two more measures that make the same basic point:
My goal here is not to exonerate the US or to push the blame onto the developing world -- one of the guiding principles of this newsletter is that it will not become a source of anti-Indonesian jingoism. And, of course, it’s true that the US and Europe are basically the entire reason we’re in this mess, and also that our per-capita emissions are very high. We should all stop trying to apportion blame; the reality is that we’ve been shitty, other countries plan to be shitty -- the entire world is basically joining hands and singing a song of shittiness as global temperatures skyrocket. We honestly deserve every bit of glowering Greta Thunberg has to dish out, which is to say: MUCH glowering.
But, good news: Climate change isn’t a Greek morality play, it’s a problem to be solved. So, let’s look at where we are. Rich economies are slowly getting a handle on things. The share of energy that comes from low-carbon sources, though still small, is growing. Electric cars are becoming a thing. The left is slowly working up the nerve to tell far-left activists that they need to get their heads out of their asses and consider energy sources other than wind and solar. Market mechanisms that will benefit low-carbon technologies are in the works. There’s still a long way to go, but some pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place.
Things look very different in the developing world. Much of the world is still being electrified, and a lot of that electricity is coming from coal. Developing economies are different from advanced economies in that their jobs do not seem to mostly be some bullshit middle-management thing that’s 80 percent Zoom calls and 20 percent shit-talking their co-workers on Slack -- they have to actually make stuff. That usually releases carbon. Also, as more people enter the middle class, more people will have the money to do things like buy a car, electrify their home, and run their air-conditioner non-stop, which people will definitely do because some parts of the developing world are hotter than the devil’s rectum.
One thing we should have learned from Covid is that you simply cannot influence some people’s behavior. You can develop a miracle vaccine in record time, you can have it vetted by the most thorough scientific process available to us, you can make it free and accessible and even occasionally lucrative, and some people still won’t get it. This phenomenon isn’t new; you can make insurance affordable through Obamacare, but some people won’t sign up. You can tell people to evacuate before a hurricane and some won’t. There was a man named Harry R. Truman (not the president) who once lived at the foot of Mount St. Helens; as the volcano came to life, authorities begged him to leave, but he stayed, telling reporters “the mountain ain't gonna hurt me.” Anyway: His corpse is somewhere under 150 feet of volcanic debris. And there are people like him everywhere.
People in the developing world aren’t going to make astonishingly-altruistic choices that sacrifice their short-term interests for the long-term greater good. And their leaders aren’t going to make those choices, either; when prosperity and environmental concerns are at loggerheads, prosperity is going to win almost every time. This is already happening -- The Economist summarized the situation this way:
“About half of [the world’s 20 biggest economies] have climate targets that provide for their emissions to grow over the next decade—all of those are emerging economies. Their justification is that the West was allowed to spew greenhouse gases as it grew rich and that they have the right to do so, too.”
This is a candidate for the worst argument I’ve ever heard. “You did it, so we get to do it too” -- okay, sure, but if you do it, we all die.1 That includes you: You die. I mean, I guess you get the satisfaction of giving the West the middle finger, so that’s fun, but it comes at the cost of climate changes that probably leave you either a refugee from an uninhabitable, low-lying city or a bleached pile of bones in an arid wasteland. Which is probably a detail you’ll neglect to mention when explaining your policy choices to your people.
But it doesn’t matter what I think of other counties’ choices; they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do (I’m continuing the theme of unsentimental realism that I explored last week). I’m not expecting game-changing climate pledges from the developing world, and if they make those pledges, I expect them to be broken. In a way, I think climate change is getting pretty simple: It’s all about new technology. We will either invent our way out of this mess, or we won’t.
Technology is what’s allowed us to make the gains we’ve made so far. The main reason US emissions have gone down in the last decade-plus is that new extraction techniques (yes, fracking) have caused natural gas to displace coal, with wind and solar also working their way into the mix.
A secondary reason is that cars and trucks are getting more fuel efficient:
Our gains are directly related to technological advancement. In areas where we’re yet to develop cost-competitive, low-carbon products that take market share from their carbon-intensive counterparts -- areas like air travel and meat production -- we haven’t seen significant gains. In those areas, our best idea so far is “suffer through a global pandemic that shuts everything down for a year.” And as ideas go, I hope we can do better.
My thesis statement was that how much we reduce our emissions matters less than how we reduce them. So, a thought experiment: Imagine that the US achieved net zero emissions through a sea-change in consumption habits. Imagine that, all of a sudden, everyone went vegan, and stopped driving cars, and generally started living an Ed Begley Jr.-style existence. That would be truly incredible! And also practically worthless, because if that’s all that happens, the rest of the world’s emissions will still cook us alive.
The developed world’s role in climate change isn’t to be paragons of climate virtue; our role is to invent the technologies that will make net zero possible. We need to encourage innovation until we develop things like low-carbon jet travel, large-scale carbon sequestration, and lab-grown meat that doesn’t look like it belongs in a mad scientists lair squealing “kill me!” A policymaker’s role is to: 1) Steer government money towards projects that support green technology (as Democrats are trying to do right now), and 2) Create markets for new technologies (where the EU is leading the way). I think that the second strategy would be significantly more effective than the first, but both are necessary.
A plan that goes all-in on technology might actually happen, and it might actually work. People won’t suddenly stop driving, but they’ll drive electric cars when those become the best option. Likewise, developing countries will build solar farms instead of coal plants when that becomes the smart play, which means that emissions will go down even if leaders like Putin and Bolsonaro don’t undergo some sort of Grinch-like personality transformation. Emissions in the developed world are the low-hanging fruit; we need to bring them down, and fast, but doing that won’t mean the job’s done. The job’s done when low-carbon technology is so ubiquitous and affordable that nobody in the world -- not even the “don’t tell me I can’t be buried alive by a volcano!” types -- even considers doing things the old way.
I'd like the next column to be about...
1. The pressures one feels when they’re building a news media thing (e.g. this newsletter) [VOTE FOR THIS]
2. Why OnlyFans banned pornography and what that means for people on their platform [VOTE FOR THIS]
3. An explainer of the child-pornography-scanning software that Apple has decided to use but that other companies are rejecting [VOTE FOR THIS]
4. How our asylum laws are extremely outdated [VOTE FOR THIS]
Okay, I’m being hyperbolic -- climate change outcomes range from “bad” to “unthinkably bad”, but we probably won’t literally “all die”. If that’s any comfort to you.