Undelivered Promises of Climate Action: The Uncertain Future of Zero Carbon Emissions in Texas Cities
Undelivered Promises of Climate Action has run arash and spreading across Texas cities. Its recent victims have included Austin, Houston, and, most recently, San Antonio. This disease is worse than most, primarily because it encourages magical thinking, triviality and rhetoric in the place of calm, sober, clear-eyed thought.
The Confusion and Inaccuracy of Linking Carbon Emission Goals to the Paris Accord
These Texas cities are now among many nationwide that have endorsed the notion of having zero carbon emissions by 2050. In some instances, they have explicitly and inaccurately linked that goal to the 2016 Paris Accord, which, to be clear, not only set no such goal, but didn’t even mention it.
The Uncertainty of Reaching Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050
That goal came from a 2018 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that concluded that the planet would need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 if there is to be any chance of holding post-Industrial Revolution temperature increases in global average temperatures to 1.5° Celsius (leaving aside that global average temperatures have been both warmer and colder prior to the Industrial Revolution).
It’s not a promising start when right out of the gate you are confused about the provenance of your goal.
It should therefore probably come as no surprise that they are equally uncertain about how they intend to reach their goals. If you asked the mayor of Houston how he planned to make a city of 4 million souls carbon dioxide-free by 2050, he would have no idea.
I don’t blame him; I have no idea either. Neither does anyone else.
So, why set the goal? And why this goal?
The Environmental Community’s Stuck Issue with Global Warming and Climate Change
That is a more comprehensible story. The environmental community has been stuck on the issue of global warming (or climate change—they’re interchangeable) since the late 1980s. By stuck, I mean they are unable to move away from it and unable to make any progress on it either with respect to public opinion, or with respect to the imposition of a new regulatory regime, or more importantly for them (I assume), with respect to actually reducing emissions.
The Disconnect Between Public Opinion, Priorities, and Willingness to Pay
Let’s take them one at a time.
Public opinion, priorities, and willingness to pay
The Consistent and Static Public Opinion on Climate Change
Despite what you may have heard or read, public opinion on this issue has been remarkably consistent and static for almost 30 years. Voters consistently rank climate change at or near the bottom of their priorities. Not surprisingly, they are consequently resistant to the idea of spending any money on “solving” or “addressing” climate. When asked in a recent nationwide survey of likely voters conducted by MWR Strategies on behalf of the American Energy Alliance how much they would be willing to be pay to address climate change, the median answer was $20 a year. That is a bit lower than the typical response which has ranged from $35 to $50 over the last few years (the current economic anxiety pops up in all kinds of places).
The Mismatch Between What Voters Are Willing to Pay and Activists’ Proposals to Address Climate Change
Place this next to former Vice President Biden’s proposed approach to address climate change, which he estimates would cost $1.7 trillion (about $5,500 for each and every American), or his campaign advisers’ approach, which would cost, by their estimate, $16 trillion (about $50,000 for each and every American), and you have some sense of the disconnect between what voters are willing to pay and what activists think they should be prepared to pay.
International efforts – Undelivered Promises of Climate Action
Similarly, efforts to effectuate meaningful international constraints on greenhouse gas emissions have also been marked by stasis (and failure). The 1993 Kyoto Protocol was a failure. The Paris Agreement was not so much a failure as a failure to try. The core of the agreement was a simple recitation of what each nation pledged to do with respect to climate change, ostensibly focused on reducing emissions to the point where increases in global average temperatures above pre-industrial levels would be less than 2° Celsius.
Leaving aside the troubling and foundational fact that “pre-industrial” temperatures have been both warmer and colder than current temperatures, Paris included no enforcement mechanism and no ability to hold nations accountable. China and India even leveraged the anxiety of the Europeans to have an agreement, any agreement, that they promised to keep increasing emissions until 2030, and then maybe, possibly, if they weren’t too busy with other priorities, think very carefully about reducing emissions at some point in the future.
Even those nations who made commitments to actually reduce emissions have been less than aggressive on their follow-through.
The United States and the United Kingdom have done better than most, with emissions flat or falling for the last few years. China’s emissions have soared, and they have about 120 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants planned, so that probably won’t change. The EU as a whole has done okay but not great. The United Nations tut-tutted everyone back in November, noting that the rate of pledged (not achieved, just pledged) emissions reductions would need to triple to maintain any hope of limiting the increase to 2°.
This year, mostly because of the economic downturn caused by the ruinous response to the coronavirus, greenhouse gas emissions will probably fall by 2-4%, which is woefully short of the annual reduction of almost 8%—that’s 8% reduction every year—that the more energetic activists say we need to maintain fidelity to the Paris Agreement.
Perhaps some context would be useful. In 1992, the world emitted about 22.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. In 2019, the most recent year for which there is data, the world emitted about 36 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide and its equivalents, and, to the extent emissions have been minimized, it is because of the widespread substitution of natural gas for coal in the United States.
Similarly, in 1985, about 80% of the world’s energy was met by traditional, affordable oil, coal and natural gas. In 2019, about 80% of the world’s energy was met by traditional, affordable oil, coal, and natural gas.
In short, attempts to impose meaningful restrictions through some sort of international regime have failed. Mostly because people (and therefore governments) prize things other than greenhouse gas reductions.
The federal government – Undelivered Promises of Climate Action
How about the federal government?
Despite 30 years of debate, Congress has yet to pass any coherent, systemic legislation addressing climate change. Instead, we have a hodgepodge of regulatory efforts (mostly tangential), spending on research and development (anywhere from 8 to 30 billion dollars a year, depending on how and what one counts), tax credits to wind and solar companies and for carbon capture and storage.
It’s not for lack of effort. In the 1990s, Congress tried repeatedly to pass meaningful comprehensive legislation with respect to climate change. As recently as 10 years ago, legislation focused on a cap and trade approach actually passed the House of Representatives, but by such a small margin that the Democratic-controlled Senate never even bothered to bring it to the Senate floor.
The regulatory route has been similarly halting. The most recent attempt, the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, was enjoined by the Supreme Court almost immediately upon its completion, and was completely rewritten by the Trump administration.
If you think about public opinion for a moment, the lack of forward momentum (or even sideways momentum) on this issue with respect to the federal government is understandable. Very few voters prioritize this issue, and their willingness to pay anything for it has been durable across time and circumstances. At the same time, well-financed groups in the national environmental movement want something done in exchange for all the cash they’ve given to the Democrats over the years. For Congress, the answer is obvious – throw money at the problem, hope your donors are happy, but make sure that voters never see the connection between what they pay (taxes) and where that cash goes (for things they don’t care about) under any circumstances. That’s why talk about a carbon tax keeps getting more scarce.
Climate plans – Undelivered Promises of Climate Action
Into this maelstrom of indifference and failure to make progress come the climate action and adaptation plans.
Given the lack of progress in the international arena, sclerotic federal attempts, voter indifference to the issue and hostility to associated costs, and the actual rise in emissions, what’s an activist to do? The answer is clear. Set a goal that is far enough in the future such that no one currently in office will need to worry about it, vague enough that no one really understands the possible costs, but sturdy enough so that you can reference it anytime you have an idea that people might resist.
In short, you want to structure a goal that allows you to work steadily towards remaking society in segments rather than all at once.
These plans are, in essence, an end-run around the democratic process. By committing a jurisdiction to a goal that can then be used to drive specific actions, rather than being initially clear on the specific actions necessary to meet the goal, activists are seeking to hide the true extent of their ambitions.
They also avoid that most lethal of answers in this arena, a tax on carbon dioxide. The last thing activists can tolerate is clarity on the part of voters as to what they are spending and what they are getting. A carbon dioxide tax, which is of course an energy tax in a different dress, is politically untenable.
Hence, a long-dated goal, with vague explanations of how it might be met, winds up being the best answer for the climate change activist.
Let’s think about how such an approach might work in practice.
Now that Houston has been careless enough to throw in with the climate crowd, what is likely to happen in the next few years? There are three paths that will be traveled.
First, shortly someone on the City Council will want the city to get “100%” of its electricity from renewable energy. Lots of companies do it; lots of cities do it. But no one not already involved in these deals really understands them. Let’s unpack how they work in practice.
Under a typical (simplified) deal, the city will contract with a renewable generator, which will sell all of its generation into the nearest market, and transfer renewable energy credits equal to 100% of the city’s electricity demand to the city so that they can claim to be 100% renewable. The power from the renewable generator is never delivered to the city. It is dumped onto a power market that most times has a large amount of excess generation.
The power from the renewable generator does not match in time or location the actual electricity consumption of the city. Instead, the city simply buys primarily fossil-based power as always from its nearest generation source.
There’s one last twist. If the power from the renewable generator receives more than the average costs on the wholesale market, then the city gets a credit for the difference. If it nets less, then the city owes more for their power than the market rate. So, essentially, the renewable company (and their financial backers) leverage taxpayers to underwrite and finance a big renewable project.
More importantly, the project will also add costs to all ratepayers in the region by increasing the costs to operate other plants on the system that will now be needed to integrate the must-take subsidized renewable power. It will also increase transmission and distribution costs that will be spread over all ratepayers.
The Massive Environmental Costs of “Environmentalism” – Undelivered Promises of Climate Action
Second, folks will get it in their heads to attack the “real” problem, namely, that Americans in general and Texans in particular drive too much and their automobiles are bigger than they should be. Houston’s plan already calls for reducing vehicle miles traveled by city residents by 20%. How? You guys need to ride bikes more. You need to take more transit.
Beyond that, Houston already has in place an initiative to encourage the sales of electric vehicles. The city “leaders” want 30% of all new car sales in Houston to be electric vehicles by 2030. Leave aside the fact that all electric vehicles do is move emissions from one place (the tailpipe) to another (the power plant).
What happens if (when) it turns out Houstonians don’t feel like riding bikes, taking buses or being told what vehicles to buy? We’ve seen that movie in places like Amsterdam, London and New York: privately-owned automobiles will be taxed for the privilege of driving and (as importantly) parking in certain sections of the city. Eventually, there will be serious attempts to ban internal combustion engines entirely. In this, as in other things, if you don’t follow the program, there will be consequences.
What about your “clean” electric vehicle? Professor Michael Kelly at Cambridge has tried to quantify what electrification in the transportation sector might mean. He estimates that “current battery manufacturing capabilities will need to be in the order of 500-700 times larger to support an all-electric global transportation system. The materials needed just to allow the United Kingdom (about 65 million people) to transition to an electric transportation sector would require 200% the annual global production of cobalt, 75% of lithium carbonate, 100% of neodymium and 50% of copper. Now imagine those numbers 50 times bigger. Imagine them happening by 2050.”
The materials demand just for batteries is beyond known reserves. Try to imagine the environmental impact of mining and transporting that volume of material. Think about the need for vast amounts of rare elements, far beyond known world reserves, as well as the incredibly huge amounts of materials that will be needed to recycle the batteries and other components at some point in the future.
That all is going to happen in the next 30 years? Without any environmentalists intervening to raise issues, litigate and otherwise slow down the progress?
Let’s try to put that in perspective. The owners of the Keystone Pipeline have been trying for 12 years just to get one moderately-sized pipeline built from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico that would move considerably less than 1% of all the petroleum consumed on this planet each and every day.
Third, to deal with residential emissions there will be natural gas moratoriums. Dozens of jurisdictions have already considered such moratoriums as part of new construction building codes, and it is easy to imagine such an idea might spread. Leaving aside the enormous increase in demands for electricity in those places where natural gas meets most of the need for residential and commercial heating, such moratoriums would compromise entire industries, starting with the restaurant industry. Moreover, those moratoriums would (of course) damage those least able to pay for the associated increased costs – the poor, the elderly, those on fixed incomes.
Finally, while these plans for the electricity, transportation and heating sectors are byzantine, mythical and expensive enough, no one has yet articulated a plan to address carbon dioxide from industries like chemicals, cement, airlines, steel mills, whatever. Before agreeing to a goal, I might want to know what its effect might be on my industrial and employment base.
Undelivered Promises of Climate Action
The tragic thing is that these goals, even if they could be met, would have no effect at all on global average temperatures, greenhouse gas emissions, sea-level rise, hurricanes or any of the other things that may or may not be exacerbated by climate change.
The United States emits about 15-17% of all the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet—about 6.6 billion metric tons out of the worldwide total of about 36.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That number has been fairly steady for a number of years, and consequently, the percentage has been dropping. China probably emits about 15 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases each year (numbers are always dicey with China). San Antonio emitted about 17.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Those 17 million tons are about a week’s worth of the likely increase in emissions from China next year.
I didn’t vote for the Paris Agreement. Neither did you. Neither did anyone in the United States. Voters in Houston or Austin or San Antonio did not vote for the climate plans they will now endure. At some fundamental level, the climate change activists need to shave their beards, come out of the caves and have a legitimate debate about what these ideas are, what they will do and what they will cost. Otherwise, we will be right back here in 10 years talking about how these particular climate plans were the latest in a long line of failures. Days of reckoning can be postponed, not avoided.
About the author: Michael McKenna is the President of MWR Strategies and a columnist for The Washington Times. He was most recently a Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House. He has worked in senior positions in a variety of government agencies at the state and federal levels. He has advised a wide variety of political and corporate clients with respect to government affairs, public policy issues, opinion research, and communications strategies. He has also worked on numerous campaigns and transition efforts.
Mike has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University, and has been a Fellow at the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas and the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver.