Sunday, November 29, 2009

China, the US, and the Problem

China and the US have announced their opening positions for the Copenhagen talks. Expectations were set low a couple weeks ago in Singapore, and the two biggest carbon polluters predictably came in even lower:

  • Obama promised to reduce overall US carbon emissions by 17% by 2020. Not coincidentally, this is precisely the amount cited in the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the US House of Representatives as a goal for that date.
  • China promised to try to increase the carbon efficiency of its economy, i.e. reducing the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP, by somewhere between 35-40%. This would still result in a net increase in carbon emissions, since the Chinese economy is growing so fast.
Needless to say, these kinds of half measures and vague promises aren't going to solve the problem. If they had been made 20 years ago, they would have been a start, but it is too late now. Come to think of it, they were made 20 years ago, that's what the Kyoto protocol was all about.

What do we need to do to start solving the problem? In the US, how about 30% reductions by 2020 and incentives and regulations to enforce it? That's what California is planning (California, incidentally, is the 8th largest economy in the world). For China, how about a policy decision (not a vague promise) to henceforth make all development sustainable, and involve renewable or non carbon polluting energy?

Yes, I know China still has a large population of rural poor and it's really tough that they ended up developing now when the atmosphere has no reserve left to take on carbon. But physics doesn't really care about the Chinese national ego. If they end up putting that carbon in the atmosphere, they are going to end up cooking and cooking us in the process. They don't have to run their economic development like we did, they could take a different path. They need to return to the spirit of Mao, who did try a different path (unfortunately, he really didn't know what he was doing and wasn't willing to accept any criticism) but this time with something that will work. If they do that - make their economy essentially free of dependence on fossil fuels - they will essentially end up with an economy that is far in advance of the US. In a sense, China has a much easier job than the US, because they could start out with a carbon-free economy instead of having to convert an already existing one.

What should the US do? Well, instead of pork-barrel cap and trade, which has largely been given away to every industry crying about how hard it will be to meet the caps, how about a carbon-added tax? This works like a value-added tax, except it taxes the amount of carbon involved in the steps of producing and delivering a good or service. Measuring embedded carbon is difficult, but phasing the tax in over time to allow measurement procedures to be worked out could reduce the amount of difficulty. The carbon-added tax would be applied to everything that is produced in the US or imported. This last point is important, because it takes away an argument China has against the provision in the Waxman-Markey bill to tax imports from countries that are lax about carbon reduction. China can easily take this to the World Trade Organization and get a ruling against it as an illegal restraint of trade. If, however, the tax applies to all goods both domestically produced and imported, then they would have much harder time arguing that the tax is directed at restricting imports. Cap and trade, in contrast, is an invitation to political manipulation, and that is exactly what happened in Europe, where it was instituted, and in the US House, where most of the credits were given away during negotiation of the Waxman-Markey bill. It will have almost no impact on carbon  emissions until after 2020.

If this is the best Obama can do, then it sure isn't "change we can believe in". It's more like "change to keep the coal magnates and right-wingers comfortable and ensure that polar bears perish". Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's ostensibly Republican governor, is doing much better, he's fully behind the 30% reduction.

1 comment:

  1. It doesn't help that there is now this controversy in the press over the emails that seemed to indicate the climate change scientists at East Anglia University (UK) were faking or anyway massaging their data. Maybe you could do a post on that?