After pledging to scrap US involvement in the Paris agreement to combat climate change, president-elect Donald Trump seems to have made an about turn. He now says he has an 'open mind' to it although he did concede that his foremost concern is how it will 'cost our companies'. The question is, if global warming does present a problem, what can actually be done about it? Although Australia has one of the highest rates of emissions per capita, overall our contribution is small and even though we have willingly signed up to the Paris agreement, what effect will this actually have on the global climate?
In order to combat future global temperature rises, mainstream thinking tells us that leaving fossil fuels in the ground is the answer. According to the IPCC we must act now to reduce emissions substantially in order to reduce climate risks and increase our chances of adapting to a warmer world. Across the globe various carbon pricing schemes, taxes and renewable energy subsidies have been put in place in order to roll back the clock on global carbon dioxide emissions.
In Australia we have the Emissions Reduction Fund to which the government has allocated $2.55 billion in order to to help achieve Australia's 2020 emissions reduction target of five per cent below 2000 levels by 2020. Then there is the $1 billion dollars pledged after the Paris Climate Summit last year, $200 million pledged over 4 years for the Global Climate Fund, and also $200 million dollars pledged to Mission Innovation, a multi-country group whose mission is to accelerate global clean energy innovation. It has been estimated that the overall gross cost of decarbonising Australia's energy production over the next 20 years will be $60 billion.
But what will we get for those dollars and how much will it affect global temperature? With perhaps the exception of Mission Innovation, which focuses on more on 'clean' energy innovation and not carbon reduction, the dollars spent largely serve to increase energy poverty and slow economic growth, by making energy production more expensive.
Together with the Renewable Energy Targets we are also heading towards a 23.5% reliance on unreliable renewable energy sources by 2020, and nobody can say with any accuracy exactly how many degrees of future warming these measures will mitigate. Seeing as Australia emits just 1% of the total global carbon dioxide emissions per year, and we are striving to reduce this to 5% less than our 2000 emission levels, we can assume it's not very much.
Meanwhile, worldwide there are 350 gigawatts of coal projects currently under construction, and 932 gigawatts of pre-construction coal proposals in the pipeline. Compare that to Australia's annual coal production capacity of 29 GWe in 2014, it becomes apparent that our efforts are not only futile, but seriously undermined.
Consider also that global population will continue to rise until at least mid-century, meaning that in order for global carbon dioxide emissions to even remain stagnant, per capita emissions must continually fall proportionate to population growth. We are told that if fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions stabilise at today's levels, the climate will still warm by .6 degrees over the next 100 years.
To achieve this continual reduction in per capita emissions, it means no new cheap energy for the developing world, and somebody would have to stop India, Indonesia and China from building new coal powered plants. A realist knows that this will never happen; it is more likely that globally we will continue on a 'business as usual' course. No number of carbon reduction schemes in the West will have any ability to stop this growth and they certainly won't have any effect on the temperature.
But in rushing to decarbonise, are we on the right track?
Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels outlines in his book just how much benefit fossil fuel use has been to humanity. By every measure human well-being is better than has ever been. We have cleaner air to breathe free from wood smoke, clean water, sanitation, sturdy homes, modern medicine and modern farming methods all due to the cheap reliable energy that fossil fuels provide. To him, the planet is here for us to modify and improve and in doing so we improve our lives. He even argues that fossil fuels improve the environment, evidenced by the fact that richer, industrialised nations have more measures in place to protect the environment than poorer, non-industrialised nations.
By continuing to access cheap and plentiful energy through the burning of fossil fuels we are further equipping ourselves to withstand extreme weather events, and overcome and adapt to any changes a that warmer planet may bring. Mortality rates due to extreme weather events have actually declined by 95% since 1900, due, one can assume, to the protection modern fossil fuel powered technology affords, by way of satellite monitoring and more powerful modes of disseminating information.
Those who hark back to pre-industrialised societies as some sort of utopian existence where man is at one with nature, neglect to realise that without modern civilisation we would be faced with disease, hunger and very short and miserable lives. Those who demonise the 'dirty fossil fuel industry' naively forget just how much our modern lifestyles relies on it in order to function. They also forget that 'clean' energy sources have their own negative environmental impacts, and that fossil fuels and rare earths are required in order to produce 'climate friendly' solar panels and wind turbines.