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Borde-nough: Busting a cap into Cap-and-Trade

Published: October 30, 2009
Section: Opinions

<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot</i>

ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

A gust of climate change initiatives is now blowing through the halls of the United States Congress. The Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee is now considering a bill that would by various means including a “cap and trade” pollution allowance scheme, reduce emissions of gases that cause climate change by 20 percent over the next decade. A companion bill passed the House in June. When delegates to the United Nations Climate Change Conference gather in Copenhagen in December, they, too, will surely talk up a storm.

But will the legislation that ultimately passes Congress, or the document that will likely emerge from Copenhagen to replace the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which expires in 2013, amount to more than hot air? Just as important, in the circumstances, is another question: should it?

Many people’s well-being and money are riding on these questions. But most of the news that we hear and read about climate change does not help us to answer it. Instead, most reports focus on very different questions: whether climate change is real and whether it is a threat. These reports suggest, somewhat misleadingly, that the climate of debate on these issues is changeless. For example, on Oct. 9, BBC News reported that “[f]or the last 11 years we have not observed any increase in global temperatures.” On Oct. 22, the Met Office, the United Kingdom’s National Weather Service, shot back that a global average shift upward of nine degrees Fahrenheit over the next 50 years was likely in the absence of new initiatives to prevent it.

The next day, America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report claiming that rising Arctic temperatures are bringing about a dangerous ice melt. That came in the wake of news of a poll released on Oct. 22 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that found “a sharp decline over the past year in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence that global temperatures are rising.” According to the Pew poll, “Across the political spectrum…fewer also see global warming as a very serious problem.” Half of Americans say that they support limits on carbon emissions, which are often blamed for causing global warming. But the more poll respondents heard about such limits, the less likely they were to favor them.

Fortunately, despite the unceasing interest in whether climate change is real and dangerous on the part of the journalists who decided that the stories above were newsworthy, the world’s governments have long since stopped debating these issues. The U.S. and most other countries did so as early as 1992, when they agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In that Convention, they agreed that they “should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects.” In defining “climate change,” they acknowledged that it was due “directly or indirectly to human activity.” Even a “lack of full scientific certainty” about “threats of serious or irreparable damage” from climate change, the governments agreed, “should not be used as a reason for postponing” the “precautionary measures.”

As early as 1992, then, the world’s governments left the debate about the threat posed by climate change behind. In the same 1992 Convention, they addressed the bigger question of whose ox would be gored by the measures taken to counter the threat. The parties to the treaty agreed to “protect the climate system…on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” All ratifying countries undertook commitments under the treaty, but they agreed that “the developed country Parties should take the lead.”

Thus, “developed countr[ies]”–a term undefined in the Convention–agreed to risk their oxen first. In the event, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the 1992 Convention placed radically different requirements on developed and developing countries, which signed different Annexes to reflect this. Important developing countries, including India and all of East Asia except Japan, were allowed to sign as developing countries. That meant that they could ratify the Kyoto Protocol without committing to binding targets for restricted emissions. The United States’ and other developed countries’ economies, on the other hand, would have to bear large new costs to meet binding commitments under Kyoto.

Some thought that Kyoto assigned responsibility for dealing with climate change on the “basis of equity,” as agreed to in the 1992 treaty. But “equity” can be hard to define, and what must be done to achieve it changes with the circumstances. The 1992 Convention recognized that the U.S., as a “developed country,” had greater “capabilities” than its “developing country” peers, and therefore more “responsibilities.” But it did not freeze those responsibilities and capabilities in time. As countries’ relative capabilities changed, the 1992 Convention implied, the equities of balancing the treaty parties’ responsibilities for dealing with climate change would have to be weighed anew.

In 1997, the U.S. Senate thought that the balance of capabilities had shifted sufficiently in favor of some important developing countries to require them to implement at least some binding emissions targets. Ninety-five senators raised the specter of “serious harm to the economy of the United States” if the U.S. undertook binding emissions commitments while developing countries were left free of them. The U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol, but the Senate never ratified it to make it a binding part of American law. Practically every other developed country has ratified the Protocol.

One may differ with the Senate’s balancing of the equities in 1997; many people certainly have. But, if anything, a refusal to burden the U.S. with heavy binding commitments if its most important economic competitors will not undertake to meet even light ones represents an even fairer outcome today than it did then.

Some “developing” countries’ capacities to undertake meaningful commitments have markedly increased. “Developing” China, for example, now emits more greenhouse gases than the U.S. The economies of such countries are performing better than America’s. On its end, the U.S.–heavily indebted, expensively committed around the world, and fraught with economic woes–is arguably less well-situated to undertake an expensive program to limit climate change than it was twelve years ago.

Today, members of Congress are considering how America can regulate itself out of bad, potentially climate-changing habits. But its plans will increase costs for businesses and consumers in the middle of hard economic times. And its approach suggests that foolish, ineffective unilateralism is not the exclusive province of the American political right. Congress’s plans amount to an economic and environmental suicide pact. It will leave other countries free both to outmatch the U.S. economy and to destroy the world’s environment, while at the same time taking away the bargaining leverage the U.S. needs to get other countries to commit to emission reductions.

Senate backers of the climate control bill have euphemistically called their proposal the “Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.” If enacted, the bill would carve an even bigger slice out of America’s economic pie for the energy sector, but the new investment would produce not more or cheaper but costlier energy. It would give away free pollution allowances that could be bought and sold by firms, ensuring–as politicians of all stripes are always wont to do–that well-placed rich people will make money through the scheme. It is doubtful that the proposal would create more jobs than it would cost by making businesses less competitive and driving them across the borders. And it is unlikely that the proposal would put more people to work, improve infrastructure, or beautify the country more than an equally expensive public works scheme.

And it will undermine American power. A very different sort of climate change took place on Oct. 21, when China and India announced that they planned to cooperate in opposing efforts by other governments to get “developing” countries to agree to binding emissions targets at Copenhagen and afterward. Most agreements on climate issues have inclined toward preventing climate change or have at least been politely noncommittal, but this one amounted to an agreement to pollute.

In effect, the Chinese and Indians have told the “developed” countries to take their emissions commitments and stick them where the climate doesn’t change. “Developed” countries should feel free to hamstring their own economies, that’s fine, but the “developing” giants will happily pollute in their place and eat their economic lunch. “Developed” countries can make binding emissions limits for themselves in Washington and Copenhagen. But without agreements on limits that will also bind important “developing” countries, the latter countries may soon make just about everything else.