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A 'Problem' That's Not All Bad

Rather than waste time on what is politically unattainable, develop affordible energy efficiencies for global use.

June 22, 1997|BERNARD L. WEINSTEIN | Bernard L. Weinstein is director of the Center for Economic Development and a professor of applied economics at the University of North Texas in Denton

Is the world getting warmer or not? Scientists and politicians continue to disagree over whether the mean surface temperature of the planet is rising and if the increase in carbon dioxide emissions is the culprit.

Though the final verdict is out, let's side with the Greens and accept their argument that, yes, the Earth is half a degree (Celsius) warmer than it was 100 years ago and is likely to heat up another degree or two in the next century if remedial actions aren't taken.

To help deal with this "problem," international talks are underway aimed at reaching a global climate treaty by the end of the year. The Clinton administration has already agreed to proposals that would place binding commitments on industrial nations to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but only voluntary commitments on developing countries. This despite the fact that, according to the International Energy Agency, as much as 85% of the projected increase in man-made global emissions of carbon dioxide will come from developing countries and the transitional economies in Eastern Europe, a result of growing electric power use and automobile ownership that invariably accompany economic growth. Estimates of the costs to U.S. industry to achieve a 15% to 20% reduction of carbon dioxide within a decade range as high as $7 trillion.

A variety of initiatives has been proposed to help the U.S. and other industrialized nations reduce future carbon dioxide levels, including the trading of emission credits among companies and nations as well as carbon taxes levied on the consumption of fossil fuels. But let's be realistic: In the existing political climate, Congress isn't going to impose new taxes on fossil fuels or anything else, not to mention the huge outcry from American industry that would attend any such proposal. Indeed, the administration is already bending to industry's concerns by proposing that companies and governments be allowed to "borrow" emission credits from future years while claiming progress in the current year.

Because of the huge economic and political imbalances between the industrial and developing world, the "treaty" approach to emissions reduction is a pipe dream. The advanced countries aren't going to lower their living standards and the developing ones aren't going to worry about externalities while their incomes are a mere fraction of those in advanced nations. Therefore, rather than waste our time on what is politically unattainable, why not focus on some initiatives that might actually make a difference?

First, we should recognize that climate change isn't all bad. A slight warming of the planet can help feed its burgeoning population as the growing season is extended and more land comes into cultivation, particularly in the far northern and far southern latitudes. To the extent that farmers make more efficient use of fertilizer and adopt minimum tillage practices, emissions of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide will be mitigated even in the face of greater food production.

Second, we must separate the issue of air pollution from that of emissions reduction. Air pollution in the developing nations is a local problem demanding local solutions, and these can't be addressed in a global climate treaty. But steps can be taken in both developed and emerging nations that will help reduce pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases.

Let's start with the obvious: Plant more trees everywhere they will grow and limit commercial cutting in tropical rain forests, especially the use of slash-and-burn harvesting. Then, let's make every effort to transfer the energy efficiency ethic that has taken hold in the U.S. and other advanced nations to the developing world. If demand-side management makes sense for U.S. electric utilities, shouldn't it also make sense for utilities and consumers in the developing countries? Energy-efficient lighting, variable-speed motors and high efficiency refrigerators are but a few on-the-shelf technologies that could be easily transferred to emerging nations.

As for the developed world, hundreds of new, end-use electrotechnologies are coming to market that produce fewer emissions than their fuel-burning counterparts, even when power plant emissions are counted. Electric vehicles are but one example. Others include microwave clothes dryers, electric-arc furnaces, high-intensity quartz lamps for cooking, ozone laundering and the microwave disposal of medical waste.

In the end, a judgment has to be made whether the potential benefits of proposed greenhouse measures will outweigh the costs. Before hobbling our economy with costly new regulations and taxes, we should explore all possible alternatives that might achieve the same results. And the Greens should keep in mind that for any global emissions reduction program to succeed, every nation must participate.

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