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William O'Keefe
CEO, George C. Marshall Institute

William O'Keefe

William O'Keefe is CEO at the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank that promotes better use of science in public policy. He is a former COO at the American Petroleum Institute. ALL POSTS

It's all about priorities

Q: As we get closer to the United Nation's conference on climate change in Copenhagen and nations begin setting their agendas, are their goals realistic? Last week, the U.S. and China each announced their emissions target goals. Are they big enough?

A balanced economic, energy and climate policy based on carbon intensity improvements would more likely be successful than one built on arbitrary reductions that can only be achieved by inflicting more harm on the economy.  The Chinese have their priorities right. Congress and President Obama do not.

For most of the past decade, China has been adamant in rejecting greenhouse gas emission reductions under an international treaty like the Kyoto Protocol. Since developing countries are exempt from Kyoto, it has taken the position that it will remain a developing country for decades to come. The recent announcement of its intent to make explicit reductions in  carbon intensity should be viewed positively. Since the devil is in the details, more information will be needed to judge how much of a challenge its carbon intensity goal represents.

On the surface, it appears to reflect a commitment to make the investments in technology that will allow it to use energy much more efficiently.  It also reflects what can be achieved when nations cooperate to develop their own climate change programs instead of being  subjected to top down mandates.  The Asian Pacific Partnership and Major Economies process surely has had a positive effect on China.

The Chinese commitment is also striking in comparison to President Obama's pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The Chinese commitment reflects a recognition that its first priority is economic growth and that growing economies with growing populations require more energy, not less. Unfortunately, President Obama's commitment makes emission reduction a higher priority than economic growth.

If that was not the case, he and members of Congress pushing similar goals under cap and trade proposals would have explained how it can be achieved.  Over the next decade the U.S. economy would have to accommodate upwards of 30 million more citizens, grow 3 percent annually or better and simultaneously reduce emissions by 1 gigaton-- the equivalent of doubling the miles per gallon of every car on the road or building more than 100 nuclear power plants. The capital stock turnover, engineering services and investment needed for such an achievement in 10 years is enormous. It is implausible that our economic objectives can be achieved while also using less fossil energy. Alternatives to fossil fuel use simply are not going be available on a sufficient scale and at a competitive cost to make the 17 percent goal realistic.

By William O'Keefe  |  December 1, 2009; 10:22 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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