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From Kyoto to Copenhagen to... Hanoi? The Looming Failure of Yet Another Climate Change Meeting

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In December, another alphabet soup congregation on climate change will meet in Durban, South Africa to discuss efforts to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. Durban may be a fine city. But if the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change wants a dose of reality regarding carbon emissions, it should convene in Hanoi.

The reason: over the past decade, Vietnam's carbon dioxide emissions grew by 136%. That's faster than any other country on the planet. And Vietnam's explosive growth looks like it will continue for years to come. Indeed, the country where some 58,000 US soldiers died stands as a proxy for many of the countries in the developing world. And as those countries grow their economies, their energy use, and their carbon dioxide emissions, the hope for any hard cap -- or tax -- on carbon becomes ever more remote.

To be sure, Vietnam's energy use is a tiny fraction of that used by countries like China and the US. In 2010, Vietnam's 90 million inhabitants consumed about 900,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. That's a rounding error when compared to China's consumption of nearly 49 million barrels of oil equivalent per day or US consumption of nearly 46 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Even South Africa, which has about half as many people as Vietnam, consumes nearly 2.5 times as much energy.

But the latest data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, released last month, shows that Vietnam's huge appetite for energy is part of an ongoing surge in the developing world to escape energy poverty. Vietnam represents a whole class of fast-growing, populous countries where energy use is growing ferociously and that's resulting in more carbon dioxide emissions -- 33.1 trillion tons in 2010 alone, an increase of 28% over 2001 numbers.

Whether the issue is oil use, coal consumption, or electricity generation, the numbers out of Vietnam are stunning. Over the past decade, Vietnam's oil use jumped by about 82%, following only Qatar (202%) and China (86%). Vietnam's coal use has grown faster than any other country. Over the past decade, coal consumption in Vietnam jumped by 175%, outstripping the percentage growth in Indonesia (134%) and China (128%). And nearly all of that coal is being used to produce electrons.

Over the past decade, Vietnam's electricity generation increased by a whopping 227%, the fastest growth on the planet. Again, the total amount of electricity used in Vietnam -- about 100 terawatt-hours -- remains miniscule when compared to US consumption of 4,326 terawatt-hours. But the essentiality of electricity to modernity is incontrovertible. The countries that can produce cheap, abundant, reliable electricity can grow their economies, educate their citizens and pull their people out of poverty. And those that can't, can't. And that's why all of the past -- and all of the future -- meetings of the UNFCCC have and will result in failure to put a hard cap or effective tax on global carbon dioxide: the developing countries know that limiting their access to hydrocarbons will necessarily retard the growth of their economies.

Look at Asia. Even if we forget for a moment about the 2.1 billion people living in China and India, we can see countries like Indonesia, where electricity generation has increased by nearly 64% over the past decade. Or consider Thailand, where electricity use has jumped by 55%. Or consider Egypt, where electricity use is up 79%. That has meant big increases in carbon dioxide emissions. Over the past decade, Indonesia's carbon dioxide emissions increased by 40%, Thailand's jumped by 51% and Egypt's grew by 53%.

Need another reason for why the just-five-months-away climate meeting in Durban will fail just as all of its predecessors have failed? Coal use is soaring. Over the past decade, global coal use is up 47%. That's faster growth than what was seen in electricity generation (up 36%), natural gas use (up 30%), and oil consumption (up 13%). Environmentalists around the world love to vilify coal. But for countries like Vietnam, Pakistan, China, and others, coal keeps the lights on. That's certainly true here in the US, but over the past decade, domestic coal consumption has fallen by 5%.

Thus far, I've given you a lot of percentages. But focus, please, on these two: 27% and 28%. Since 2001, global energy use is up by 27% and carbon dioxide emissions are up 28%. Put another way, over the last decade, global energy use increased by about 51 million barrels of oil equivalent per day; that's equal to about six Saudi Arabias' worth of daily oil output. Energy use is soaring as more people from Hanoi to Hangzhou move into the modern world. And that means that huge cuts in carbon dioxide emissions -- by 80%, as Obama claims the US must -- simply will not happen.

Like it or not, the world economy runs on hydrocarbons -- coal, oil, and natural gas. And that will remain true for many decades to come. Energy transitions happen over decades or centuries, not years. Countries like Vietnam, China, and India, will never agree to any tax or limit on carbon dioxide. Nor does it make much sense at all to impose heavy levies on the US, and other developed countries. Why? Well, over the last decade, US carbon dioxide emissions fell -- by 1.7%.

Every once in a while, we need to focus on the numbers and put aside the hype. The scale of current global energy use -- about 241 million barrels of oil equivalent per day -- is the same as 28 Saudi Arabias of energy production. The great cities of the world, whether it's Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancun, or Durban, run on highly processed forms of energy: electricity, ultra-low-sulfur motor fuel, and natural gas. And they need lots of it.

Global leaders should give up their fixation on cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Significant cuts will not happen voluntarily anywhere. Instead, leaders should be focusing on providing as much cheap, abundant, dispatchable power to their citizens as possible. And to make certain political leaders understand the need to eradicate energy poverty, the UNFCCC should hold its next meeting in Hanoi.