Reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is important, but top-down mandates will not work. The Kyoto Protocol is a perfect example of the inherent flaws in such treaties. Why?
First, without requiring equal participation from all greenhouse gas-emitting countries, a global treaty would put the United States at an unfair disadvantage economically. Climate change is a global challenge requiring a global response. However, emerging nations such as China and India have said that they will not accept binding and enforceable greenhouse gas-reduction targets, citing the negative impact of such targets on their economies. Without participation from the developing world, the United States could meet its reduction targets yet would not put a dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact, even if the United States acted immediately and ceased emitting all greenhouse gases, emissions from the developing world are expected to double by 2035 and triple by 2060. The Kyoto treaty created a nonlevel playing field where the undeveloped world is able to produce goods at a cheaper price through the use of less costly, energy-inefficient methods, threatening U.S. jobs and competitiveness in the global market.
In addition, some developed countries have come up with creative ways for getting around their reduction allocations and treaty responsibilities. Germany, for example, achieved its targets through unification with East Germany, as the latter’s collapsed economy and the shutdown of dilapidated factories resulted in drastic emissions reductions. Austria, which claims to be a big producer of clean energy, purchases substantial energy from Hungarian coal-fired power plants. Such machinations are not bringing the world any closer to developing and deploying low-carbon technologies needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A second reason a global treaty will not work is that the technologies needed to achieve mandated targets do not yet exist or are in embryonic stages of development. Wind and solar, for example, are promising technologies, but they provide only intermittent energy. Though Congress authorized the development of 130 clean energy technologies, these initiatives remained unfunded until passage of the economic stimulus package. Without incentives to make current energy sources capable of burning more cleanly, to capture and store greenhouse gas emissions, or to produce enough low-carbon energy to replace fossil fuels, the world will have no means of achieving meaningful greenhouse gas reductions.
Third, environmental groups are, ironically, standing in the way of increased use of existing carbon-free technology. Nuclear energy—carbon free—is opposed by the environmental community. Moreover, environmentalists recently delayed or stopped more than 65 renewable energy and transmission projects through local opposition or litigation.
Kyoto is an example of a failed policy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve a sensible and effective climate change policy, we must ask ourselves two questions. First, does the solution allow the economies of all nations to grow? Reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will be a long effort, costing trillions of dollars. Still, those costs can and should be managed so that they don’t destroy entire economies, kill jobs, and lower our standard of living.
Second, does the solution allow flexibility and require cooperation from all greenhouse gas-producing countries? Our leaders must appreciate that every nation can contribute to greenhouse gas emission reductions in a way that suits it best. Some countries are equipped to preserve forests; others are capable of replacing old coal plants with state-of-the-art coal technology. Some countries will choose a cap-and-trade system; others will develop and deploy new technologies. It’s less important how greenhouse gas producers contribute to the solution than that they contribute, period.
The world can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But to do so, it must move from rigid ideology to practical approaches that create the economic wealth needed to pay for the transition to a nonfossil-fuel economy.
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