July 8, 2005 | WebMemo on Energy and Environment
In the pending energy bill, Congress has given the threat of global warming the urgency it deserves-absolutely none. Now, it is time for the rest of the world to get its priorities similarly in order. The Group of eight (G-8) economic summit may have started that process.
The recently passed House and Senate versions of the energy bill contain no binding provisions to cap emissions of carbon dioxide, the ubiquitous byproduct of fossil fuel consumption that contributes to global warming. Attempts to add carbon dioxide caps as amendments to the Senate bill lost decisively, with many Senators questioning both the costs of and the environmental rationale for such unprecedented constraints on the use of coal, oil, and natural gas.
This is a fortunate omission because a carbon cap would have negated the energy bill's overall goal of reducing energy costs in the years ahead.
The Senate did agree to a non-binding resolution declaring global warming a problem. Other provisions in the energy bill would expand the Bush administration's policy of funding research and development of technologies to produce energy with less carbon emissions. This includes clean coal, new-generation nuclear, and hydrogen fuel cells.
Congress has clearly joined the Bush administration in rejecting carbon constraints, opting instead for the longer-term approach of developing and deploying new technologies.
Attention turned to the G-8 summit recently concluded in Gleneagles, Scotland. Tony Blair and other European leaders initially hoped to shame the U.S. into making a stronger commitment to rein in carbon emissions. But their main weapon in this fight-the fact that the other seven nations (Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada) have ratified the Kyoto Protocol and thereby committed themselves to tough carbon emissions reductions-is rapidly falling apart. According to the European Environment Agency and other sources, carbon emissions among these nations are on the rise and most are not on track to meet their commitments under Kyoto.
These nations are learning the hard way what Washington knew all along: any short-term effort to ratchet down carbon emissions using existing technologies will be prohibitively costly. By some estimates, the global costs could reach well into the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. It is time for a new approach.
Accepting this lesson is key to the rest of the G-8 agenda, especially Mr. Blair's stated goal of reducing poverty in Africa and the rest of the developing world. Indeed, it would be very good news for the world's poor had the G-8 summit signaled the beginning of the end for the Kyoto approach, in favor of the Bush administration's strategy of research and development of new technologies.
Simply put, pursuing Kyoto diminishes the chances that developing nations will ever escape poverty. Of course, forcing these nations to adopt Kyoto-style energy limits would make the fossil fuels necessary for growth prohibitively costly. But even if the developing world is exempted from carbon dioxide controls-an exemption that would ensure no progress on reducing overall emissions regardless of what the first world does-the adverse impact on development would still be substantial. The developing world needs an economically robust developed world with which to engage in mutually beneficial trade, but that won't happen with the Kyoto Protocol in place. In effect, Kyoto-if actually implemented-would slow the economies of the first world, greatly jeopardizing any hopes of lifting the third world up.
Granted, the Bush Administration's approach has problems of its own. Past attempts at federally directed energy research have a spotty record. Further, the costs of such efforts-currently funded to the tune of about $5 billion annually and with more on the way in the energy bill-are far from trivial and may well prove disproportionate to the problem. Nonetheless, this approach would be an order of magnitude cheaper than the Kyoto Protocol or any similar carbon cap system.
Judging by the Gleneagles Communiqué, signed by the G-8, it appears that the rest of the world is moving towards the Bush Administration's position.
Ben Lieberman is Senior Policy Analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.