Issue Date: January 11, 2010
The United Nations-sponsored climate conference held in December in Copenhagen was neither the groundbreaking success proclaimed by President Barack Obama and other world leaders nor the abject failure gleefully denigrated by climate-change skeptics.
C&EN Senior Correspondent Cheryl Hogue attended the entire conference and, with assistance from Senior Correspondent Jeff Johnson here in Washington, reported on it in several News of the Week stories (Dec. 14, 2009, pages 6 and 7; Dec. 21, 2009, pages 6 and 7; and Jan. 4, page 8). Hogue's comprehensive wrapup from the conference appears in this week's issue (see page 27).
As Hogue points out, negotiations in Copenhagen "yielded little. They were stymied not only by shifting geopolitical dynamics but also by procedural maneuvers that stifled consensus and by disruptions from the unprecedented number of people observing the proceedings."
That's a nice way of saying that the conference was a mess. As Hogue suggests, it has now become likely that a UN-sponsored, worldwide agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions is unattainable. Climate-change skeptics are elated by this development, but they should not be.
Their fundamental position is no longer tenable. No world leader who spoke in Copenhagen suggested that human-induced climate change is the fiction skeptics claim it to be. Copenhagen, in fact, established global climate change caused by human activities as a worldwide challenge, no longer deniable, that even the Chinese recognize they have to at least pay lip service to.
Do not underestimate the importance of lip service. Climate-change skeptics would have you believe that Chinese (and Indian and Brazilian) commitments to curb their contributions to global warming are meaningless. This misses the point entirely. China, India, Brazil, and other rapidly industrializing countries have now acknowledged that they have a responsibility to play a role in protecting the global climate. This is important progress that should not be dismissed.
Nevertheless, consensus doesn't equate with constructive action on climate issues. What is also now clear is that the U.S. should move forward to aggressively tackle climate-change issues outside of the UN-sponsored framework.
For starters, H.R. 2454, the 1,200-page climate-change and energy legislation passed by the House of Representatives in June 2009 that establishes a CO2 cap-and-trade system, should be put out of its misery in favor of a simple carbon tax. Cap-and-trade is a sop to the coal, petroleum, and other energy-intensive industries; it does nothing but muddle the very simple need to put a price on carbon on which industry can base its capital-spending decisions. A carbon tax accomplishes that goal simply and efficiently.
The Europeans already are coming to recognize the inherent problems of cap-and-trade because they are experiencing them. The European Union and the U.S., together with Japan—already the most energy-efficient developed nation—should jointly enact a significant and escalating carbon tax that would promote real energy efficiencies and cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
But wait, wouldn't that leave China, India, and other nations free to undercut the carbon-tax-inflated prices of goods from the U.S., the EU, and Japan? Not at all. Nations that adopt the carbon tax regimen should impose a carbon tariff equal to the carbon tax on all manufactured goods from countries that do not participate.
The Chinese, in particular, would protest such an action vociferously. Let them. China is not a developing nation; it is an authoritarian, industrialized, mercantile behemoth that is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It is time for the world to stop allowing China to pretend otherwise. If China wants to sell its carbon-tax-free products to developing nations in Africa, Asia, and South America, fine.
Many thoughtful economists have put forth mechanisms whereby a carbon tax would be truly revenue neutral, simultaneously discouraging the use of fossil fuels and stimulating development of alternative energy sources while protecting less affluent consumers. It's time to join forces with other developed nations to put one in place.
Thanks for reading.
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