I am told we should applaud the recent announcement by G7 leaders on ending carbon use by 2100.
We should do so because it is a truly moment of unity on a crucible of our age. But we should keep the applause short for at least three reasons.
First, think of oil and such like Social Security in the United States.
Social security has brought enormous benefits to both individuals and society over the years, but is in obvious need of radical reform if it is to continue to provide affordable benefits into the future. Ditto agricultural subsidies, ditto defense spending, etc.
We may quibble the details but we all know this to be generally true. But which politician, besides those labeled wacky, socialist or inclined to political suicide would seriously touch Social Security reform?
Second, and entirely related, since the Congress of Vienna, through to the League of Nations and the United Nations today, nations states have consistently reverted to the self-interest mean.
Emerging markets countries, petroleum nations, Frackers, big oil, amongst others all have and will exert tremendous influence on any meaningful international or national carbon reform. To whit the Koch brothers and their legion of followers, Euro Oil’s idea of less carbon being natural gas, and Australia’s carbon tax reversal. Does anyone really think Russia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Exxon, Shell etc. are going down without a fight? It should scare us greatly that all major oil companies, save StatOil, have reportedly gutted their alternative energy departments.
Third, the unimaginably rapid emergence of fracking is only going to make oil and gas cheaper. OPEC’s refusal to reduce production volumes in the face of low oil prices is testament to this market reality. They fear Frackers who have pushed oil and gas volumes up, prices down and world supply out much further than our carbon soaked atmosphere could ever withstand.
Unimpeded the market will do what the market has always done, and unregulated, cheap will always trump dear.
Solar, wind, kinetic and other alternative energy technologies meanwhile are approaching price tipping points making their widespread adoption inevitable. Some well-placed subsidies, strong policies discouraging fossil fuel extraction and effective carbon taxing will give alternatives that final over the top shove they need.
Is this in the cards?
G7 leaders have put the strongest ever rhetorical line in the sand for ending carbon. But words alone are not going to be nearly enough to easily and quickly overcome Social Security like entitlements, national self-interests, market inertia, cheaper fossil fuels and influential, obstinate, well-financed vested interests.
The problem, most inconveniently, is now, not in 85, not in 50, not even in 30 years. Until we see swift, effective politically costly action, a cynic might rightly assume G7 leaders are simply punting to those next in line.
PS How convenient it was that Mr. Putin was not present at the meetings!