Energy & Environment

Kyoto: Simply a Plan for Passing Gas

The great weakness of the Kyoto protocol and other utopian fantasies aimed at controlling the emission of greenhouse gases is that such efforts focus their emission limits primarily upon the developed world. Even the supporters of the concept acknowledge this flaw.

It’s not that the architects of such über-regulations aren’t ambitious enough to dream of running the entire world economy that keeps the protocols focused on the West. It’s just that the developing world, being one of the long-standing victimization causes carried close to liberal hearts, presents something of a dilemma.

What does a white liberal do when his urge to dominate the world on behalf of the Earth runs smack into his urge to free the third world from European domination? Well apparently, if you can’t shoo the holy cows out of the sacred grove, you can just beat harder on the same old scapegoats.

Said otherwise (and in English), environmentalists have decided to ignore the gases coming from the developing world, and to be extra mad about the gases coming from Europe and America. Such an approach cannot possibly do much to curtail total greenhouse gas emissions, but it hurts all the right people. And besides, it can’t make things worse, right?

Actually, it can make things a lot worse. Greenhouse gases are not being emitted for the heck of it. They are a byproduct of economic activity, which tends to require profits. When this profit is curtailed by tax and regulation in one region, competitors in another region will gain advantage and become more profitable, fueling growth in that region.

Burdening the Western economies with greenhouse gas schemes, while exempting the developing world, will move net economic activity out of the West and into the developing regions. In a best case, this would result in a game of musical chairs, in which the site of gas emission changes, but total emissions remained constant.

More likely, it will increase total emissions, since the economies of the developing world are not nearly as efficient as the developed economies of Europe, North America, and the Asian rim. Efficient economies generate wealth with fewer resources and less waste. (They also tend to be less corrupt, so existing laws against pollution are actually obeyed). This efficiency can be seen in greenhouse gas emissions.

If one worries less about the total gas being emitted by a nation, and more about how much good is being done by its emission, one can see that (if one believes that greenhouse gases are a danger) the greenhouse gases of the industrialized world are the last gases one would want to limit.

The graph accompanying this article shows the carbon emissions of various regions expressed not in total mass, or per capita values, but in terms of how much wealth is generated by its emission. The units are thousands of dollars of gross domestic product per metric ton of carbon equivalent emitted by that region. (Year 2000 dollars and exchange rates, data from the Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy.)

While all such gas may be equal in its greenhouse properties, it should be very obvious from this graph that not all gas is equal in its economic benefit. The most efficient, and thus least harmful, greenhouse gas emitters in the world are the modern economies of the West (which includes the most developed economies of Asia in this analysis). The regional averages are not weighted for total GDP, but are instructive nonetheless.

The emissions of the United States fall within the same range as those of Europe and the other modern economies. On average these economies emit only approximately 0.14 metric tons of carbon to create $1000 of benefit to their people –less even than regions possessed of little modern economic activity, such as Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

By contrast, the Middle East produces three times as much carbon emission for the same benefit, in part because of the careless flaring off of fossil fuels at the site of production. Paradoxically, increased demand for natural gas (and better transportation infrastructure for it) could conceivably reduce this source.

Likewise, the economies of India and China, two rapidly developing regions that would be the probable new sites of much of the economic activity forced out of the West by Kyoto-style burdens, are remarkably less efficient. China produces 600% as much carbon equivalent per unit of wealth as do the Western economies.

By far the worst offenders, though, are the economies of the former Soviet Bloc nations. If there was ever any doubt that capitalism and harnessed self-interest benefit the environment by increasing efficiency, this figure should remove it (but it won’t, of course; secular religions are just as stubborn as the clerical sort).

Sure, America, Europe, Japan, South Korea and their like burn a lot of fuel, but then they do a lot of useful things with it. The planned economies of the Soviet worker’s paradises, by contrast, burn a lot of fuel and produce principally friction, exhaust, leakages, and corruption. Much of the third-world burns only a little fuel but produces even less benefit. The Middle East spews carbon merely to avoid having to deal with it at the wellheads. And while India, China and other rapidly developing nations improve daily and produce increasing wealth and hope, they remain significantly less carbon efficient than the developed economies.

Why would anyone want to curb carbon use where it does the most good, and subsidize it where it does less good? Clearly, the wisdom of introducing a significant economic burden upon our economies as a reaction to climate change is debatable.

And this analysis doesn’t even address the accuracy of current beliefs about global warming, an entirely separate, but unresolved, issue. To give you an idea of how crude our current understanding of such climate modeling really is, consider that last week a paper appeared in the journal Nature, reporting that plants naturally produce large amounts of methane through a previously unknown process.

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas, according to current understanding, and it is claimed that it may account for 20% of man-made effects on climate. The phenomenon reported in Nature was so large that it could account for as much as 30% of total annual sources –and yet it was totally unknown. Models had previously assigned these emissions to human activity such as rice farming.

This large of a surprise in methane modeling would be equivalent to an economist claiming to have developed a good model of the United States economy, only to discover that his calculations had totally omitted any contribution from the entire Pacific Time zone of the United States –a mistake not previously discovered because he had also so grossly overestimated the other states that the totals seemed accurate.

Yet, we are all led to believe that the time for thought and debate has passed and the time for massive, expensive lockstep action is upon us.

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