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Academic Freedom #2 : The UN climate treaty needs energy producer obligations

Image Credit : Orin Langelle GJEP-GFC

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls nations to attend regular gatherings of the signatories to the ratified convention – the Conference of the Parties.

The nations send delegations – hardly ever sending their premiers, presidents and primes. What bargaining powers do these delegations have ? They have the authority to offer small percentages in emissions reductions, just to show willing. They have the mandate to refuse policies their nations do not like.

The language is framed around energy consumption – most country delegations have been advised by their economists that increased efficiency in the use of energy means that the national energy use will decrease. O wondrous technology ! You allow us to cut our energy use – and therefore our carbon intensity.

These same economists advise that the Holy Ghost of Innovation will inspire Research and Development – which will mean that new technologies will curtail greenhouse gas emissions. We only have to invest in new engineering. This Cult of the New is the fable on which most advanced nations hang their hope.

Economists avoid discussion of the Rebound Effect, the Jevons Paradox, the Khazoom-Brookes Postulate – what I call the Spanish Windmill problem – the obvious result of more efficient, cheaper and cleaner technology. Energy use and carbon emissions do not tend to fall in a functioning economy – and even if they do, they don’t fall very quickly.

The United Nations discussions will continue to circle in ineffective loops if they continue to focus on constraining consumption. The deliberations should instead be framed around energy production.

The plain and obvious projection is that if fossil fuels continue to be mined, they will continue to be combusted for energy. The burning of fossil fuels in economic production may move from the industrialised countries to the less industrialised countries through the globalisation of trade and manufacture, but they will still all get burned.

So, it is pointless, senseless and useless to blame the consumers of energy – obliging the countries, who represent the citizens of the world, to commit to emissions reductions.

The people have the right to energy, and if the only energy being produced is high carbon, that is what they will consume.

Governments will fight on behalf of energy consumers, to maintain level relative pricing of energy, because energy is the backbone of the good functioning country. They will find hooks to justify calling for energy price control. The debate around fuel poverty is a just cause – and also a great way to push the energy companies to keep their prices relatively low.

And if energy is forced to remain cheap, normal economic policy carrots and sticks cannot touch the consumption of energy.

So a government that commits to emissions reductions simply cannot deliver it.

To move the United Nations debate over to production has obvious problems. Governments clearly do not have control of energy production. Whilst some nations are oil, gas and coal producers, many more are dependent on imports, including some of the producer nations.

The multinational, transnational, international oil, gas and coal companies and corporations will not respond to demands of governments to curb their business, because they have secured the legal right to trade. So much of the world’s capital – from simple stock market investment through to major pension funds – is locked into fossil fuel company stocks and shares. Nobody can come against the investors’ rights to profit from their stake in fossil fuels. As long as fossil fuels are sold, people will buy them and burn them for energy.

Nations are not the only energy producers, and they do not have leverage over the other participants in energy production, and this is why the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has an incomplete set of delegates at the table.

The United Nations climate process will continue to fail unless all fossil fuel producers are obliged to make treaty with the rest of society.

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