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Beyond Kyoto

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Will George Bush salvage his legacy on climate change?

Bush on Climate ChangeTomorrow morning, President Bush will deliver what may be the most important environmental speech of his administration, as he addresses participants at an international White House summit on global warming. Key developing nations such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and South Korea will be at the table, along with Australia, Russia, and the European Union, ready to hear the president’s ideas about alternatives to the Kyoto Protocol. It remains to be seen, however, whether Bush will propose truly bold policy options that might actually change the way people think about warming—and even if he does, whether anyone is still listening.

Bush has been something of an enigma on climate change for friends and foes alike. More than any other head of state, he understands what’s wrong with the Kyoto-style approach favored by Europeans. Yet Bush has been unwilling to make climate change a personal priority, rarely speaking about it at any length. Indeed, he has mostly let cabinet secretaries and other staffers craft his policy—and explain it publicly. The result has been a series of frustrating and inconsequential half-steps that have failed to reshape the way Americans and foreigners think about the problem. This week’s summit represents Bush’s last chance to display real leadership.

The Kyoto Protocol has been a colossal failure. America and Australia refused to ratify it, citing the exorbitant costs of compliance. The developing world—including economic giants such as China, India, and Brazil—was exempt from it. Russia and other Eastern European economies were given allowances greater than their actual emissions. And even the Western European countries that agreed to its emission-reduction targets have been largely unable to meet them. More importantly, even if the Kyoto targets were met, their effect on the global environment would be inconsequential: Driven by skyrocketing emissions from the developing world, warming would continue at nearly the same pace.

All nations must recognize their responsibilities to work toward effective, long-term solutions to climate change, while also protecting the economic interests of their citizens.

Given the glaring inadequacy of Kyoto, developing a credible alternative—both for America and for the world—is essential. Yet environmental activists and Democrats in Congress remain almost universally committed to pursuing Kyoto’s “cap-and-trade” approach to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, despite ample evidence that the European emissions-trading system is fundamentally flawed. The protocol is due to expire in 2012, and international leaders intend to complete negotiations on a successor regime by 2009.

Pressure on America to return to the Kyoto fold will only grow over the next two years. Absent an alternative, it is nearly certain that Kyoto II will be more of the same—attractive symbolism that overlooks the inconvenient truth: We cannot stop global climate change through short-term emissions reductions. Due to our technological and economic constraints, such reductions would only slow warming by an infinitesimal amount. The Kyoto Protocol and its successor agreements, well-intentioned though they may be, have about as much chance of stopping global warming as the United Nations has of stopping war. We may spend billions trying to cut emissions, but there is no realistic chance of success.

Is there a way out of this mess? This week’s White House summit, following up on the G8 meeting earlier this summer, is President Bush’s long-overdue effort to create an alternative to Kyoto—or rather, as the administration likes to describe it, a “parallel process” to the Kyoto II negotiations. In an unusual moment of deference to European and Japanese sensitivities, Bush has largely eschewed direct criticism of Kyoto. Instead, he simply notes that it is not an attractive option for all countries. Indeed. But what alternatives could Bush present? Can he lead us out of the swamps of Kyoto?

This is no small task, but it can be done. Bush can make an important contribution to this debate if he insists on three simple principles:

1. Climate change is a problem of unparalleled complexity; a one-size-fits-all approach to it will never succeed. A serious effort to stop warming will require true global participation—but each nation needs to be free to set its own emissions targets and choose the means of reaching them. This is the only realistic basis for asking both developing countries (China, India, Brazil) and Kyoto holdouts (the United States and Australia) to accept emissions-reduction obligations. Under Kyoto, the world’s wealthiest nations have agreed to unrealistic emissions reduction targets—and then ignored them. We would do better if each nation set more realistic targets—and then met them.


2. All nations must recognize their responsibilities to work toward effective, long-term solutions to climate change, while also protecting the economic interests of their citizens. It is unrealistic to expect the developing world to adopt policies that will keep their citizens in poverty; it is no less unrealistic to expect Americans to accept policies that would create double-digit increases in the cost of electricity, gasoline, home-heating oil, and energy-intensive consumer products. Over the long term, more modest policies that establish realistic and attainable goals will better demonstrate that emissions can be cut cost-effectively.

3. There is no quick and easy solution to warming. The only possible solutions require a truly ambitious long-term strategy for the research and development of clean-energy technologies.

One cost-effective option: Simply impose a modest tax on carbon emissions. The revenues could be invested in climate-related R&D—or returned to the taxpayers.

Political forces, both here and abroad, are demanding immediate action, but real solutions to climate change will require decades of research to develop new technologies capable of generating massive amounts of zero-emissions energy—or of removing equally large amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere—in a cost-efficient manner. Therefore, real solutions cannot depend upon short-term emissions reductions of the sort Kyoto calls for. The key to our success lies not in cutting emissions as quickly as possible, but rather in finding ways to reduce emissions as much as possible over the long run.

As scientists Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala of Princeton University have demonstrated, stopping warming through emissions reductions would require policies that avoid 175 billion tons of expected carbon emissions in the next 50 years. That is a staggering figure that may be hard to grasp in the abstract. To provide some context: Inventing—and then installing—new technologies to capture and sequester carbon dioxide at 800 large coal-fired power plants would enable us to avoid just 25 billion tons of emissions over 50 years. That would only be a small fraction of what is needed to stop warming.

Although the real solution to climate change involves research and development, a research-only agenda is politically unpersuasive. Some action to curb emissions now, cost-effectively, is also necessary. Here, too, President Bush has a tremendous opportunity to show leadership, and climate experts across the country will be listening closely today to see if he utters the magic words: carbon tax.

The key to our success lies not in cutting emissions as quickly as possible, but rather in finding ways to reduce emissions as much as possible over the long run.

The impracticality of the European emissions-trading system established under Kyoto is clear. Expanding that dysfunctional system to include key developing nations is even less plausible. But a growing number of distinguished environmental economists agree that one cost-effective alternative would be to simply impose a modest (say, $15-per-ton) tax on carbon emissions. The revenues could be invested in climate-related R&D—or returned to the taxpayers. This would be politically unpalatable but environmentally cost-effective. Michigan Democrat John Dingell is expected to introduce House legislation this week to create a carbon tax, a move his own leadership opposes. Will President Bush have the courage to speak out in favor of Dingell’s proposal at today’s summit?

Climate change is a long-term challenge—a marathon, not a sprint. If we are to meet that challenge, we need to set out on the right path and keep a steady pace. Although voters are eager to see quick action on climate change, the critical question is not what our emissions are today, or even ten years from now; what matters are global emissions levels 30, 50, and 75 years from now. If we learn how to cut emissions dramatically in the long run, it won’t matter whether our emissions in this decade rise or fall slightly.

For now, we should focus on achieving cost-effective emissions reductions through the use of carbon taxes; finding ways for China, India, and other developing countries to set realistic goals for their own economic growth and emissions reductions; and investing in long-term research and development of climate technologies. Today’s White House summit may be the first serious step in the right direction—if President Bush is willing to spend his limited political capital on the issue.

Samuel Thernstrom is director of the AEI Press and director of the W. H. Brady Program on Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.

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