Just Economics: Conservator not hegemon

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How can the United States achieve lasting greatness? I claim that the best way of gaining really durable eminence is by dismantling our pernicious military-industrial complex and becoming a comprehensive environment conservator. Evidence about climate change, reviewed below, provides strong support for this contention. 

The Paris Climate Accords (PCA) is an international treaty on climate change adopted at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference held near Paris, France. The Accords have been accepted by 193 countries. The United States left the PCA under Trump but returned in 2021 under Biden. Iran is the only major carbon emitter that has not accepted the Paris Climate Accords. 

The purpose of PCA is to keep mean global temperatures well below 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Preferably, mean global temperatures would be limited to 1.5 degrees centigrade above preindustrial levels, but this would require global carbon emissions to be cut in half by 2030. A related goal of PCA is to achieve global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

The Paris Climate Accords require that each country set carbon emission targets and report regularly on progress toward reaching these targets. Every five years new and more stringent emissions should be established. The Accords also encourage developed (i.e. rich) countries to provide financial support to developing countries enabling the latter to reach their emissions targets. 

Environmentalists have criticized the PCA on several grounds. First, countries are free to set whatever emissions targets they wish. Second, there is no enforcement mechanism requiring that countries actually meet their emission targets. Third, the targets actually chosen are entirely insufficient for reaching even the 2 degree centigrade objective. Supporters of the PCA acknowledge the validity of these criticisms but interpret the Accords as a valuable base from which progress can be made. 

Every two years the United Nations Environment Program, in collaboration with the Stockholm Environment Institute, publishes a comprehensive Production Gap Report that “tracks the discrepancy between governments’ planned fossil fuel production and global production levels consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C or 2 degrees C.” The report for 2021, based on a collaboration of more than 40 climate experts, is not encouraging, to put it mildly. 

  The report finds that governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than consistent with 1.5 degree Celsius warming and 45% more than consistent with 2 degree warming. The report also finds that, since the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s largest economies (G20 countries) have given more funding to fossil fuels than to the production of clean energy. In fact, the current fossil fuel production plans of the world’s countries are considerably higher than the fossil fuel production implied by their PCA pledges. 

These distressing production gaps appear dramatically in the graph above taken from the 2021 Production Gap Report. The graph contains four lines projecting fossil fuel production between now and 2040. The purple line indicates fossil fuel production consistent with 1.5 degrees C warming. The green line indicates fossil fuel production consistent with 2 degrees C warming. The brown line indicates fossil fuel production implied by PCA pledges. The red line indicates fossil fuel production implied by the current plans of the 193 countries that have accepted the Paris Climate Accords. 

The graph depicts three major production gaps. The gap between the red and brown lines shows the projected difference between what countries promised to do and what they are actually doing. This gap is currently about 3% of global carbon emissions (GCE) and is projected to grow slowly over the next 30 years. The gap between the red and green lines indicates the difference between the fossil fuel production that countries actually plan on doing and what would be required to keep warming below 2 degrees C. This gap is growing rapidly and by 2040 is projected to be 45% of current GCE. The third gap, between countries plans (red line) and GCE required to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees C (purple line), is even more enormous. By 2040 it is projected to be 65% of current GCE. 

The 2021 Production Gap Report emphasizes that the climate change situation is perilous but not hopeless. It also emphasizes that “governments have a primary role to play in closing the production gap and ensuring that the transition away from fossil fuels is just equitable.” Unfortunately, no major country has taken bold leadership in addressing the climate crisis. 

The actions of our own country are hardly exemplary. Although President Biden announced the goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the United States is currently the world’s largest producer of oil and gas and is second (in energy terms) in coal. Our government has encouraged expansion of oil and gas production in many ways. This includes support for research and development of fracking technologies and promotion of fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines. Our present production path will not even approach zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

If our country really desires lasting greatness, it should abandon the futile and destructive effort to be the global military and political hegemon. Instead, it should endeavor to become a global conservator, showing how a large country could comprehensively reorganize itself to address the climate emergency. It will require radical and sometimes painful changes in American society. However, the rewards for such a massive environmental transformation would be enormous. The United States would earn the profound admiration and gratitude of future generations, and American society would gain a long and healthy duration. 

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly. 

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