Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

U. S. can lead the way to cut carbon emissions
Newsday - July 15th 2008

It is always right to look at agreements made at the annual Group of Eight summits of rich-country leaders with skepticism. These summits are little more than photo opportunities with banquets attached. But the response of environmentalists to the G8´s agreement last week on how to deal with climate change has overdone that skepticism.

The pact the leaders signed up to at their meeting in Hokkaido, Japan´s northernmost island, is as good as could have been expected. They have accepted that action needs to be taken and that emissions of climate-changing gases need to be halved over the next 40 years. Yes, the agreement was vague and was cast so far in the future as to be barely a real commitment. But it prepares the way for the real negotiations next year.

Nothing more could have been achieved this year because of America´s election season. Everyone is waiting to see who is elected president, and what attitude he and the new Congress take to climate change. Since the United States is one of the world´s two biggest emitters of climate-changing gases - the other is China, which overtook the United States as an emitter this year - and since the United States refused to ratify the first global treaty on climate that was agreed to in Kyoto in 1998, its attitude is crucial if anything is to be done.

So, as President George W. Bush pointed out at the G8 summit, is the attitude of China and other fast-growing developing countries. Invited to the summit just as second-class observers, China, India and the others attacked the G8 deal, saying that since the industrial countries were responsible for almost all the carbon-dioxide and other gases now warming up the atmosphere, they should bear the burden of cutting emissions, not the poorer countries.

Some thus conclude that the prospects of a serious global plan must be dim. But that is wrong. The Chinese response was just negotiation, a ploy in a poker game. Why reveal your hand when the game has barely begun?

Here is what should be done - and why the prospects for real action on climate change are much better than the environmentalists say.

What every rich country needs to do is to penalize activities that produce a lot of carbon dioxide and thus provide incentives for people and companies to switch to cleaner ways of doing things. The two ways of doing that are taxes and regulations. No one likes taxes. But a new presidency and a new Congress provide the best opportunity to get around that fact.

The new president should propose the introduction of a tax on carbon, which would start small but be gradually increased over a long time period - as much as two decades. That tax would thus be imposed on gasoline but also on all other forms of energy that involve carbon. In the same package he should announce that the revenues from this new tax will be used to finance a cut in the federal income tax, also phased in gradually over the next two decades. That´s the only way to make higher taxes on gasoline politically acceptable.

That proposal, combined with anti-pollution regulations and targets, would make the new administration instantly credible in international negotiations. In fact, it would give America a strong leadership role. It would also give America great leverage in dealing with China.

China, in fact, is likely to be quite receptive to a deal. Its Communist leadership knows that public protests inside China about pollution are growing and could pose a future threat to the regime. It has already been trying to enforce stricter environmental controls on local governments and municipal authorities. In the late 1990s, the leadership used China´s negotiations to gain entry to the World Trade Organization as a powerful tool to force reforms through at home. The same trick will now be available through negotiations for a global environmental treaty.

In fact, other poorer developing countries - notably India - promise to offer stiffer resistance to making emissions cuts than China will. China has reached the stage where cutting pollution is in its own interest.

Bring on the poker game. It can be won by the planet.


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