12/13/2011 09:21 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

Durban Wrap-up

Looking back, the Durban Climate Conference, I think, can best be summed up "the world lived to fight another day."  Climate diplomacy neither broke through nor completely broke down. The US hid behind China; India hid behind the US.  China, seemingly more skilled at these things, managed to hide behind itself. All three  governments ignored what they know about the urgency of the problem.

All three collaborated to sustain the big myth,  the  frame that is crippling the high-performance, low carbon transition - the belief that the inefficient combustion of vast amounts of fossil carbon is the most hopeful strategy to lift billions of people out of poverty, or, alternatively, to retain the economic leadership of wastrels like the US.   The final Indian intervention -- the complaint that India could not agree to have a legal agreement until it knew what was in it, because, in the words of India's Environment Minister and Chief negotiator , such a concession might "sign away the livelihoods and sustainability of 1.2 billion Indians...." merely capped days of conversation rooted in this notion that the big risk is that one country or another will prematurely kick its carbon addiction, that instead of there being a first mover advantage in getting off fossil fuels, there is a first mover sacrifice.

But that myth -- that the high carbon pathway is the road to development -- should long since have been discarded on the trash heap of $100/bbl oil, $4/pound copper and $120/ton  Asian coal.

 Global warming demand four reforms from every country.  Stop wasting carbon; make every molecule do useful work.  Light and power our economies without coal.  Convey people and goods where they need to go without oil.  Restore the diversity and carbon balance of fields, prairies, forests and wetlands.  Even if Jesus, or Muhammed, or Krishna, were to snap a divine finger and end the link between carbon pollution and climate disruption these four reforms would be amply justified by economic and development imperatives alone.  There is not enough cheap oil or coal in the world to elevate the lives of the world's four billion poor; trying to do so will kill millions, mostly the poor, with soot, smog, and heavy metals; and will bankrupt the treasuries of nations like China, India and America that face trade deficits for the deadly carbon duo, coal and oil.

Waste:  America's gluttony needs no comment.  About half of US fossil fuel use literally heats the sky, doing no useful work; perhaps another half supports absurd consumption patterns divorced from genuine human need.  China is racing to become  equally gluttonous, but has not yet shred the massive inefficiencies left over from its centralized economy.  It recklessly  uses 20% of its water supply to produce coal-fired electricity, and then invests massively in using that electricity to desalinize ocean water.  India is not gluttonous - but it is, still, wasteful.  The 400 million Indians who depend on kerosene for lighting use perhaps 100 times as much carbon/lumen of light as their urban counterparts blessed  with electricity.  (Indeed, kerosene lighting in India emits 10% as much carbon as the entire British economy.)

Coal:  Here the US has its best story.  Proposals to build new thermal coal stations have virtually all been blocked, and already 10% of the existing coal fleet has its retirement dates announced.  As Deutsche Bank said earlier this year, in the US coal is "a dead man walking."  China and India both saw their  current expectations - based on $40 ton, $.045/kwhpower - crash this year onto the shoals of $120/ton coal imports, translating to $0.095/kwh power - more expensive than wind and only a little less than solar.  US coal deaths - "only" 10,000 a year because of low population density and moderately good pollution standards - are coming down.  India's are not yet at Chinese levels - where coal is one of top causes of death.  But if the current plans for electricity generation are ever realized, India may join China's unenviable status as a country where rich and poor alike die, most often, from breathing.

Oil:  Even oil and gas man T. Boone Pickens calls the $400 billion  annual US oil imports bill "the greatest wealth transfer in human history."  Over-reliance on the passenger car is a major drag on the US economy - providing parking spaces free for drivers alone costs at least another $127 billiona year, $1000/family/year. India looks positively frugal by comparison.  But India's  oil imports bill is close to $90 billion this year, four times as large a share of India's GDP as America's bill.  Add to this bill Indian coal imports at $10 billion headed towards $20 billion with projected new thermal capacity, and it is India, not the US, which is most threatened by hydrocarbon imports.  Yet, like the US, India seems fascinated with cars, and utterly bored with the more practical needs of public transit. China is the odd man out. Its massive export surpluses mean that it doesn't need, for now, to worry about the price of imports.  But its electricity sector, like India's, operated this summer with massive shortfalls due to the high price and short supply of coal.  And China and India are competing against each other to drive up the price of coal in Asia, to such an extent that there is little doubt that every megawatt of wind or solar or efficiency they deploy is not only cheaper than the coal that it replaces, but also helps bring down coal prices and hence the cost of every other MW on their grids.

Landscapes:  US prairie soils, once 20% carbon, are down to 2-3%.  Over-fertilization has created huge dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.  But the US still enjoys relatively low population densities, and grasslands and forests only harvested for a century.  So no points for our current, somewhat lucky circumstances.

After thousands of years of harvesting, India can justifiably take pride in how much remains of natural landscape productivity- for a little while longer.   But underneath what remains of India's primary forests - long-term assets - are short term profits in the form of coal, iron ore, aluminum.  Will today or tomorrow win out?  And how can India gather the resources and the focus to begin restoring millions of hectares of degraded, but  potentially productive acres that can store both water and carbon, and yield food, fiber and fodder?

China, particularly on water, is in the worst case of all.  And it is rapidly sacrificing agricultural land to development, and poisoning air, water and land with the emissions from its over-reliance on coal.  The Chinese have shown that they can massively mobilize to replant forests, or reduce logging - but they have yet to figure out how to make their growth pattern work with their natural systems, instead of against them. 

Waste costs; coal kills; oil bankrupts; landscape degradation starves. None of these core truths can be discarded simply by having an economy that burns more fossil fuels.  Yet in Durban, the US, China and  India, seemed locked into a dance of death, in which the negotiating award prize would somehow be awarded to the party that held out longest against admitting the truths by which all three of our societies will flourish or wither.

How do we get past this denial?