- The poorest 5 billion people in the world already produce more carbon than the developed world. In the future the gap will grow.
- The poor are motivated almost entirely by price. Unless the developed world pays them to not use oil, coal and wood for fuel they will do so.
- Alternative energy sources such as wind and solar may cost 5 to 10 times as much as the cheapest conventional source, coal. Regardless of any possible technical breakthroughs collecting energy from these sources will require major infrastructure costs and huge areas of land (for wind or solar farms), making them even less attractive to less developed regions.
- Increased use of expensive alternative energy in the developed world gives the rest of the world a competitive advantage in industries based on cheap and dirty energy. In particular, reducing Western oil consumption by a significant amount would simply make oil even cheaper and more attractive. With much of the world’s oil supply costing only $10 per barrel to produce it is impossible to imagine it sitting in the ground.
Cut to the chase. We rich people can’t stop the world’s 5 billion poor people from burning the couple of trillion tons of cheap carbon that they have within easy reach. We can’t even make any durable dent in global emissions—because emissions from the developing world are growing too fast, because the other 80 percent of humanity desperately needs cheap energy, and because we and they are now part of the same global economy. What we can do, if we’re foolish enough, is let carbon worries send our jobs and industries to their shores, making them grow even faster, and their carbon emissions faster still.Also:
We don’t control the global supply of carbon.
Poor countries all around the planet are sitting on a second, even bigger source of carbon—almost a trillion tons of cheap, easily accessible coal. They also control most of the planet’s third great carbon reservoir—the rain forests and soil. They will keep squeezing the carbon out of cheap coal, and cheap forest, and cheap soil, because that’s all they’ve got. Unless they can find something even cheaper. But they won’t—not any time in the foreseeable future.And:
The United States would be in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol today if we could simply undo [anti-nuclear activists’] handiwork and conjure back into existence the nuclear plants that were in the pipeline in nuclear power’s heyday.Finally:
The grand theory for how the developed world can unilaterally save the planet seems to run like this. We buy time for the planet by rapidly slashing our own emissions. We do so by developing carbon-free alternatives even cheaper than carbon. The rest of the world will then quickly adopt these alternatives, leaving most of its trillion barrels of oil and trillion tons of coal safely buried, most of the rain forests standing, and most of the planet’s carbon-rich soil undisturbed. From end to end, however, this vision strains credulity.None of which is to say that environmental issues, and global warming in particular, are to be dismissed. And like most commentary on the environment, this sidesteps the central issue (too many people). But it's still a bucket of cold water over green daydreams.