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COP is a Planned Failure
Why having a bad plan is worse than not having a plan
One of the things I learned when working for the engineering company ABB was that many projects fail by design. They start from a rudimentary and slightly naïve understanding of the task at hand and stick to the original project plan long after it has become obvious that it will never work. The problem is that most of the people on the project are satisfied with working on the tasks assigned to them and have little incentive to question the overall project goals. Thus, planned failures are ultimately a management problem and are common in many large organizations. I recently came across the following helpful graphic in a report on education (A Cambridge Approach to Improving Education), which illustrates the phenomenon beautifully:
The important lesson is that having a bad plan is often worse than having no plan at all. The only way to break the vicious cycle is to admit failure and act accordingly.
The Conference of the Parties (aka COP) is a perfect example of a Planned Failure. It keeps many people and organizations busy, retains the illusion of progress, and prevents the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that would be necessary to save humanity. It started out with a couple of naïve assumptions:
Climate Change is a problem that can be fixed by technology.
There is no conflict between the size of the economy and climate protection.
Countries are willing to collaborate.
Today, we know these assumptions are wrong, so we need to stop beating the dead horse and go back to the drawing board. There currently is no plan for stopping climate change. We need to change that.
Technology is not enough
The plot above shows global carbon dioxide emissions (solid blue) and global GDP (solid red) since 1970 and current climate policies (dashed lines). When I show in my climate lectures, the audience typically erupts in laughter. Yet, this is not a joke. The G20 nations have agreed on a global growth target of at least 2%. Simultaneously, they want to half CO2 emissions within a decade. The idea is absurd. Strong decoupling does not work, as pointed out by an increasing number of researchers.
How can we be sure that it does not work? Just think of the expected lifespan of most of our fossil infrastructure. Airplanes, cars, and ships are built to last for 20 years or more, and power plants have an even longer lifespan. This means that most of the infrastructure that will be burning fossil fuels in 2030 is already in use today. Furthermore, since the world is currently running on fossil fuels and manufacturing wind turbines and photovoltaics requires energy, a massive expansion of renewables would initially lead to increased carbon emissions. Rapid reduction of carbon emissions can only be achieved by pulling the economic emergency brake. It does not take a Ph.D. to understand that.
Of course, we need new technologies and renewable energies to create a sustainable world. However, they will not help us unless we are prepared to significantly reduce consumption. The thinking behind the current climate policies is that people will consume less as they get richer. Anyone who believes that has a pretty loose grip on reality.
Stop extracting fossil fuels
The idea that some new technology will eventually replace fossil fuels might have been inspired by the famous quote of former Saudi oil minister Yamani that “the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones, and the age of oil won’t end because we run out of oil.” Unfortunately, the first part of the quote is entirely wrong, as the Stone Age never ended. Today, we are using more stone than during the Stone Age, more copper and tin than during the Bronze Age, and more iron than during the Iron Age, in addition to enormous quantities of oil, gas, coal, and other non-renewable resources. However, the second part of the quote might be true. The Fossil Fuel Age will not end because we run out of oil but because the exhaust gases will turn our planet into an unsurvivable hellscape.
The figure above shows the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (as measured by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography). The data are publicly available, and anyone with access to the internet and a plotting program can reproduce this plot.
The blue curve shows the weekly measurements with the oscillations corresponding to the breathing of the planet due to the shifting seasons. We are currently at roughly 420 ppm, which is 50% higher than before the industrial revolution. Today, one out of three CO2 molecules in the atmosphere is anthropogenic, and the rate of increase is accelerating. When prof. Keeling began measuring carbon dioxide in 1958, the increase was roughly 0.85 ppm per year. Today, the concentration is increasing three times faster, or by 2.57 ppm. Nothing that we have done during the last 60 years – including the oil crisis in 1973 or the COVID-19 pandemic – has had any impact on this rising trend.
The shaded red area in the plot above represents the danger zone; if we reach 450 ppm, we can forget the Paris agreement. However, since we are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at an accelerating rate, it does not matter where we put this boundary. The dashed curve is a polynomial fit to the data that can be used to compute the annual increase of the concentration, which is closely related to anthropogenic emissions, as shown in the plot below.
There is a good correlation between carbon emissions and the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Adding 17 Gt CO2 to the atmosphere increases the concentration by roughly 1 ppm. Since we are approximately 30 ppm away from disaster, this gives us a carbon budget of about 510 Gt CO2. The exact value is unimportant, since every ton of CO2 escaping into the atmosphere adds to the misery of humanity.
The message is simple: to prevent the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from increasing, we need to stop extracting fossil fuels from the crust of the Earth. Doing so will be difficult. Not doing so will be suicidal.
What COP misses
Thirty years ago, the United States was the only global superpower. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, and the emissions from China were justly considered irrelevant. Unfortunately, the US also made its participation in COP dependent on one condition: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.”
The starting point of COP was that preventing climate change would not involve any tough choices. Today, we know this was wishful thinking without any basis in reality. However, rather than admitting this fundamental flaw and stopping the project, we continued to muddle on hoping for a miracle, just like the generals of WW1 continued to send soldiers out of the trenches to walk toward the enemy machine guns. Continuing to insist on economic growth is just as stupid and will kill many more people.
The problem is that our societies are entirely dependent on fossil fuels. Not only do they provide most of the energy we use, but they also serve as raw materials for the petrochemical industry, and they power our armies. The last point is essential. Since the beginning of the 20th century, wars have generally been won by the countries with the most advanced technology and access to enough oil to power their ships, tanks, and warplanes. This has created the ultimate vicious circle: nations need oil to fuel their armies, and they need armies to secure their access to oil. The fact that the emblem of the United States Central Command is an eagle guarding the Persian Gulf says it all: we kill for oil.
Thus, oil has become like the “Ring of Power” in Tolkien (or Wagner). It is the weapon that bestows unlimited power on its owner but will ultimately destroy him. In a world of conflict, nobody will let go of such a weapon because the slow death from climate change seems less threatening than the risk of being defeated in a war.
The declaration from COP27 does not mention words like “oil,” “gas,” “growth,” “conflict,” “war,” or “refugee” even once. It does, however, “express deep concern towards the significant financial costs associated with loss and damage for developing countries, resulting in increasing the burden of indebtedness and impairing the realization of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.” The fact that people are already dying from climate change is nowhere to be found. On the other hand, the word “invest” appears eight and “finance” eighteen times.
If any question why we died,
tell them, because our fathers lied.
COP is an endless cycle of planned failures. It is the wrong people trying to solve the wrong problem with the wrong approach.
Global Climate Compensation
Let us conduct a small thought experiment. We want to draw up a plan to stop the destruction of our planet based on current knowledge. Obviously, the first priority must be to end the extraction of fossil fuels, and the only question is how to accomplish this, as human society is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels.
Here is a list of problems with the current approach
Since the power of nations depends on fossil fuels, it is meaningless to discuss voluntary commitments. Any perceived threat will immediately lead to countries reneging on their promises. This is happening right now as Europe is firing up old coal-fired power plants to compensate for the lack of Russian gas.
As we do not know how fast we can reduce our fossil fuel dependence, it makes little sense to specify reduction targets because they will always be wrong. Regulating the price makes a lot more sense.
National or regional efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption will lead to lower prices on the world market, benefiting countries still relying on fossil fuels.
The cost of decarbonization needs to be distributed fairly.
In other words, we need a global, fool-proof way of introducing a carbon tax in such a way that poorer countries do not suffer. This is precisely what Global Carbon Compensation accomplishes:
All fossil fuel producers pay a fee proportional to their production to a global fund.
The money from the fund is distributed among the world’s nations on a per capita basis.
The first part of the plan introduces a global carbon tax without loopholes in the simplest way possible. The second part can be thought of as an automatic loss-and-damage scheme, where the amount paid to poorer countries is directly proportional to the consumption of the rich.
The main advantage of Global Climate Compensation, which makes it superior to all other plans, is that it is testable. Since the implementation is trivial, we could try with a reasonably low carbon fee and see what happens. We are currently conducting a dangerous, uncontrolled, and irreversible experiment with the Earth’s biosphere. Would it not be better to perform a risk-free, controlled, and reversible experiment with the global economy? Any sane person knows the answer to this question.