Bush's good idea on warming

October 17, 2007|By Helena Cobban

Imagine this: The Republican governor of a large, trendsetting state works with leaders of his state legislature from both parties to enact groundbreaking legislation that requires private corporations and others operating in the state to meet stringent pro-green goals. Is this Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, 2007? It could be. But it also could be Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, 1999.

The Renewable Portfolio Standards Act adopted by Texas that year required the state's energy retailers to produce 5,000 megawatts of electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

That legislation provided a strong incentive for Texas energy companies to invest in renewables and established firm penalties for those that failed to meet their mandate. By all accounts, it jump-started the state's development of alternative energy, particularly wind farms. Nowadays, Texas leads the nation in wind-power generation.

Technological innovation can help reconcile economic development and the reduction of greenhouse gases that exacerbate global warming - but such innovation is most likely when governments establish firm mandates.

All of which makes it quite mystifying that as U.S. president, Mr. Bush has firmly opposed fixed mandates to cut greenhouse gases.

Back in 2001, his opposition to international mandates and fear of harming economic growth led him to keep the United States outside the Kyoto Protocol. This international agreement requires its rich-country participants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 to an average of 5.2 percent below their 1990 level. More recently, at the Sept. 28 meeting on climate change that he convened in Washington, Mr. Bush expressed continued opposition to international mandates.

The next three years will be crucial for our planet's increasingly endangered climate. Kyoto is due to run out in 2012. Kyoto was never a full treaty in its own right, but a "protocol" subsidiary to a broader agreement called the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, of which the United States has remained a part. Starting this December, this body will convene the complex international negotiations for a follow-up to Kyoto in 2012.

This time around, it is even more important that the United States participate in the negotiations in good faith, agreeing upfront to be bound like any other nation. People and governments throughout the world have looked askance at America's record of negotiation in Kyoto, where it held out for, and won, several significant concessions - and then walked away from the agreement that resulted. Of the significant world powers, only two remain outside Kyoto today: the United States and Australia.

There are three reasons why the United States needs to participate fully and sincerely this time around:

The evidence on greenhouse gas-related climate change is much fuller, and more worrying, now than it was when Kyoto was being negotiated in the 1990s.

This new agreement will have to be more stringent - and cover a longer term - than Kyoto. Kyoto was a useful first attempt to build a global response to dealing with climate change. Next time, the world, including the United States, must do better.

For decades, the United States has been the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter. That top spot is being overtaken by China. The post-Kyoto agreement certainly needs to include mandated caps on China's emissions. But China, like several other nations, is very unlikely to agree to be capped unless the United States is also fully part of the process.

How much does the world need to reduce its emissions? The key greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). The world emits just under 30 billion metric tons of it each year. Last year, the British government's high-level Stern review on climate change judged that annual CO2 emissions need to be brought below 5 billion metric tons if humanity is to stop heating up the environment in this way. The United States alone is emitting just under 6 billion metric tons year.

The bottom line? All nations need to work together to bring emission rates radically downward. It has to be a cooperative venture. America's past and present emissions have (unintentionally) inflicted harm on others around the world, and now foreign emissions are increasingly hurting America, too.

Yes, we will need innovation - at many levels. Conventional definitions of economic growth will have to be reconsidered. But the degree of innovation we can achieve will be strongly affected by laws, regulations and mandates that structure the incentives of all players in a pro-innovation, pro-green direction. Mr. Bush can still play a useful role in this - if only he would follow his own example.

Helena Cobban's next book, "Re-engage! America and the World after Bush," will be published in March. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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