Only Technology -- Not More Targets and Timetables -- Can Save Copenhagen
Copenhagen climate talks are in trouble. European nations have been unable to reduce their domestic emissions, developing nations like China and India have rejected emissions caps, and the U.S. Senate will not pass climate legislation this year, and maybe not next. No wonder Obama climate czar Carol Browner bleakly declared last week, "We will go to Copenhagen and manage with whatever we have."
Such a tact will require moving the Kyoto process away from its focus on unenforceable emissions targets and timetables to shared investments in low-carbon energy technologies.
This won't be easy. The environmental ministries and lobbies of developed economy nations have invested 12 years of political capital into targets and timetables. But the manifest failure of Kyoto-ratifying countries to actually reduce their own emissions -- as opposed to purchase dubious at best, fraudulent at worst "carbon offsets" -- gives the Administration a strong case to switch the focus of climate talks from pollution regulations to technology investment.
Here's the problem in a nutshell. The world will roughly double its consumption of energy by 2050. Reducing emissions by half of today's levels before then will require inventing and deploying low-carbon sources of power that are far cheaper than today's alternatives. That's because no nation will implement pollution controls that raise the price of fossil fuel energy by very much -- certainly not enough for clean power sources to become cost-competitive.
Just as no government will make fossil fuels as expensive as today's low-carbon power sources, no private investors will make the large (multi-billion) investments needed to accelerate energy technology innovation. Only governments can do this. Happily, they have a long track record supporting private sector innovation through R&D and procurement. Examples include agricultural crops, radios, jet airplanes, microchips, computers, the Internet, solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear plants and pharmaceutical drugs.
A new treaty focused on technology investment, innovation, and deployment should include rather than exclude China and other large developing nations. China is already poised to massively out-spend -- and out-compete -- the U.S. in investments in everything from solar panels to nuclear reactors to electric cards.
No treaty can work that is against the economic self-interest of nations. Economic development through new technology has the potential to bring them together. After World War II, the European Coal and Steel Partnership did just that. Through coal and steel the continent was rebuilt, in part with U.S. investments. That partnership was so successful that it is today simply known as the European Union.
It is the creation of the EU -- not national air pollution laws -- that should be the basis for a new agreement in Copenhagen.
- Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Breakthrough Institute
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