Post-Paris Pragmatism

The Paris Pact

In December 2015, an international agreement was reached whereby almost 200 nations, along with other political and commercial entities, agreed to significantly reduce annual greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide). Many also agreed to participate in a US$ 100 billion U.N. administered fund, intended to help less developed nations reduce emissions and abate damages due to climate change*. The sizes of each entity’s commitments vary widely.

President Obama’s commitment was for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25% – 28% below 2006 levels (the highest ever) by 2025, and to make substantial contributions to the U.N. administered fund. Neither the agreement nor President Obama’s commitments were submitted for ratification by the U.S. Senate; hence lack the obligatory nature of a formal international treaty.

Earlier this month (June 2017), President Trump announced that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris agreement, apparently after substantial discussions with many people. The President’s decision was greeted with both applause and cat-calls, as one might expect. International reaction was almost entirely negative, since withdraw of U.S. support greatly weakens the viability of the Paris agreement.

The properness of the President’s decision has been widely discussed in the media. No need to add to that here. Rather, this post attempts to assess the pragmatic realities going forward, especially as those realities affect smaller manufacturers.

Going Forward

Regarding Emissions Reduction:

>> I think that achieving President Obama’s commitment for the U.S. to reduce emissions by 25% by 2025 is going to happen, Paris or no Paris. The advent of “fracking”, advances in renewable energy technologies and improvements in energy utilization efficiency all have too much momentum. The economics of power generation are rapidly favoring replacing the old with the new.

As you can see from this graph labeled “Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions”, U.S. emissions peaked near 6 billion annual metric tons about 2006. A 25% reduction by would mean emissions near 4.5 billion tons by 2025. The graph projects emissions around 4.9 – 5.3 billion tons for 2025, considering eight different cases. However, these extrapolations specifically exclude technical advances not already in place (or required to be in place by regulation or legislation) at the end of 2016.

CO@ Emissions Projections

Global CO2 EmissionsNevertheless, even if the U.S. and everybody else achieve their emissions reductions commitments in full, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere will continue to increase, not decline. This occurs because increasing populations and increasing per-capita incomes in the developing world will generate additional emissions well in excess of emissions declines in the economically developed nations.

The graph labeled “Figure 9-1”, where “OECD” refers to economically developed countries, illustrates this.

Projected Global Emissions>> President Trump has reversed the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, meaning that some coal fired electric generation plants will stay on stream longer than they would have otherwise. However, “fracking” (cheap natural gas) and rapid advances in renewable energy are making coal fired plants increasingly less economically attractive here in the U.S. However, “fracking” and cheap natural gas are not generally available worldwide, so, in many places globally, coal will remain a low cost choice for years to come. The graph labeled “ES-8. World energy related carbon dioxide emissions by fuel” illustrates this. Coal is dying, and has been dying since around 1950. But coal isn’t dead just yet.

>> You may recall that, prior to the election last November, then-candidate Trump chastised Ford Motor Company about Ford’s plans to move small car production (and jobs) from the U.S. to Mexico. Ford reversed their decision. Then, early this year, Ford’s then-CEO Mark Fields asked President-elect Trump to reconsider the EPA’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (“CAFE”) program that mandates a series of increases in miles per gallon fuel economy for automobiles. Ford’s problem is that small cars are expensive to produce in the U.S. – and Ford needs to produce and sell a lot of them in order to sell a lot of large (and profitable) SUVs (the “corporate average” part of “CAFE”). To date, there has been no change in the CAFE requirements, nor do I, speaking personally, expect any.

>> It was the Obama administration’s policy to actively support research and development for emissions reduction technology. The Trump administration is expected to be less aggressive in doing so. Government supported R&D is, in my view, best applied to fundamental research and I expect that to be where most government R&D dollars will spent in the next several years. So, most practical, year over year advances in technology will continue to come from the private sector. 

The U.S. contribution to the U.N. climate change relief fund.

>> Take another look at the graph labeled “Figure 9-1”. Total global emissions are equal to the sum of the two lines. For 2012, for example, the sum of the two lines is about 13 + 19 = 32 billion metric tons. In order to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the sum of the two lines has to decrease year after year, not increase. Even if the U.S could somehow eliminate its entire 5 billion tons of emissions, that would not, by itself, be sufficient to stop the sum of those two lines from increasing.

>> Quite obviously, any viable solution lies requires substantial mitigation of expected future increases in emissions everywhere in the world. That is the purpose of the fund. However, there seems to be very little public discussion of how the fund will actually work: for example: what types of projects will be funded, on what basis the money will be dispersed, and how transparency of the disposition of the money will be assured.

The U.S. withdraw from the Paris agreements have likely confounded expectations as to who pays and how much. It is not clear how the less economically developed nations are actually going to reduce emissions, rather than continue to increase them. Perhaps the international private sector will take the lead in doing so.

So What?

The point here for pragmatists is that, Paris pact or no Paris pact, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are going to continue, regardless of individual views on the reality of Climate Change. The Trump administration is expected to be considerably less aggressive than its predecessor in forcing emissions reductions. Still, there is substantial pressure from governments abroad, from the U.S. private sector and from other interested groups to continue to push for reductions.

As usual in business, dangers and opportunities – of which there will be many, in operations and in marketing — are two sides of the same coin. Operate your business.

Chuck & Joan in ParisThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome.


* “Climate Change”, as that term is used in the Paris agreements and almost everywhere else, refers to a set of negative events (changes in the global climate) caused by increases in the mean temperature of the Earth’s surface (“Global Warming”). The Paris pacts are predicated on efforts to restrain temperature increase to two degrees Celsius (2o C) compared to temperatures before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, about 250 years ago. Increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration are regarded as causing Global Warming.

Graphs are from the 2016 International Energy Outlook (IEO 2016) and the 2017 Annual Energy Outlook. Both are published by the U.S. Department of Energy and are available free on line at www.eia.gov