All the world may be talking about cutting emissions, thanks to the gigantic Paris climate conference, but it is difficult to find countries that have cut emissions unless the cut has been an economic shift that was happening anyway.
The main characteristic of the 1997 Kyoto protocol which the Paris talks will strive to replace, was that, for one reason or another, most of the signatories did not have to do a great deal to comply with it. Britain cut emissions by switching most of the electricity-generating capacity in its grid from coal to gas last decade, for example, to take advantage of the then plentiful gas from the North Sea. The country has just announced that the remaining coal-fired plants will be retired in favour of gas generators. Germany's targets were set from just before the fall the Berlin Wall swept away most of East Germany's Cold War manufacturing base.
Australia was spared the need for tough decisions due to adjustments for land use, which allowed it to meet its Kyoto commitments with room to spare, despite substantial economic growth.
The United States might have been required to do something to meet its Kyoto targets but never ratified it, and President Barack Obama can now afford to talk tough because its electricity networks are also set to switch to gas, to take advantage of the bonanza of shale gas deposits.
There are commendable exceptions to this rule of talking rather than acting, particularly if acting means inflicting pain on voters such as, surprisingly, Brazil. This country has managed to greatly slow the rate of deforestation in the Amazonian basin through better enforcement of existing laws, and the improved ability to monitor compliance through aerial surveys. When clearances were curtailed, production of beef and soy increased because landholders were forced to use land already cleared more efficiently.
A more typical story of countries that have managed to keep emissions in check, however, is that of Norway. Emissions in that country have hardly moved since 1990 despite a vast increase in the country's wealth but, to judge from official figures, the main reason is the economic trend of a decline in manufacturing activity in favor of development of the nation's reserves of oil and gas.
Although many of the pledges to be announced at the Paris conference will sound impressive on paper, observers should look closely at the economic fine print to see whether the countries will be required to inflict any pain on their electorates.
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