Nick Butler: Time For Adaptation To Reality

  • Date: 14/11/16
  • Nick Butler, Financial Times

Adaptation is a second-best answer but it is more constructive than relying on unsubstantiated optimism.

The Paris agreement on climate change has been ratified, earlier than most people expected. Some believe that means the issue is on its way to being resolved. That is absolutely not the case.

Donald Trump’s election as president is a major setback because it removes any sense of American leadership on the issue. But that is not the only cause for concern. The inconvenient truth is that the use of coal in growing emerging economies continues to outpace anything being achieved elsewhere. The global energy market is changing; oil demand is coming to a peak and renewables are getting cheaper. But that, however important, is as yet having no more than a minor effect on the climate issue. We have to be realistic and prepare accordingly.

Climate change was barely mentioned in the US election campaign. More immediate issues — cultural, migration and the pessimism of the forgotten men and women of the middle classes — provide the focus of attention in the US, Europe and Japan. Climate change and the policies to deal with it are seen as just one reason for the deindustrialisation of the US. Mr Trump has been explicit on this and has characterised the concept of climate change as a Chinese fabrication designed to weaken American industry.

I doubt that he will bother to take his country out of the Paris agreement but there will be no significant US engagement in its implementation and Supreme Court justices could strike down the regulations designed to tighten emission standards on coal-fired power plants. Cheap gas and technology could continue to reduce US emissions but the government will not be a participant in the international dialogue on climate issues for at least the next four years.

But the problem is bigger than that. As the International Energy Agency’s new edition of the World Energy Outlook will remind us this week, hydrocarbons remain the source of three-quarters of world energy supply, and will still provide something close to that by 2040 even on optimistic assumptions about the implementation of the Paris promises.

Simply: the distribution of energy demand is shifting to the emerging economies. Gains in efficiency and cuts in emissions achieved in the developed world are liable to be overwhelmed by growth in demand in the east and south where demand remains focused on coal (in India and China in particular) and oil (especially in the Middle East). […]

The outlook then is for increased use of hydrocarbons and increased emissions. Paris did not solve climate change. More is needed, and soon. Technology offers grounds for optimism, but progress must be dramatic to make a difference.

Given what is happening in the US and Asia it would be foolish to do other than plan on the basis that emissions will rise beyond the targets set. Ten years on from the Stern Report which raised public awareness of climate change we need a new global analysis of the means of adaptation to that prospect. That conclusion may be dismissed by some as fatalistic pessimism but the belief that implies in future changes in America and Asia to me defies credibility.

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