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On Saturday, leaders from 21 countries, including China, Russia, and the United States, agreed to a statement on climate change as part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. You can peruse the full statement (read: political platitudes) for yourself, but the primary point of interest is a voluntary "aspirational goal" of reducing "energy intensity" by 25% by 2030. Energy intensity being the amount of energy required to produce a dollar of GDP.

When I first read news accounts of the APEC statement, I thought there was a typographical error. I knew that any statement from a group with "Economic" in their very name would couch everything in terms of oh-so-precious GDP, but the numerator perplexed me. Surely they meant to reduce carbon intensity, not energy intensity! After all, the carbon count is the bottom line. If one's energy is derived from carbon-free sources, then the issue of energy consumption—at least from the standpoint of global warming—is irrelevant.

On the other hand, if the plan is to continue using cheap and dirty fossil fuels, then improved energy intensity does make a difference in terms of overall emissions. This is precisely the kind of world the APEC countries seem to envision or at least accept, saying flat out: "Fossil fuels will continue to play a major role in our regional and global energy needs." I'm a forgiving guy, so let's give APEC the benefit of the doubt. The language may be dangerously misguided and the energy intensity target of only secondary importance, but these changes are still going to help us duke it out with climate change…right?

Well, take a look at the graph below and decide for yourself. The black line shows the aggregate energy intensity for APEC countries over the past 35 years (Russia excluded because of missing data). The blue line shows the linear trend in energy intensity if we extend it to 2030. The red line shows the target implied in Saturday's statement. The environmental community has (rightly) slammed APEC hard over just this point. The "goal", they say, is less ambitious than the historical record. The APEC statement will do little for the climate. Indeed, to the extent that energy inputs are a cost to businesses, all the APEC leaders have done is pledge to try to increase profits. Business as usual? You bet.


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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.