A Modest Proposal (for the rest of the world)

At this morning’s White House press gaggle, Obama’s climate czar, Carol Browner, announced “the President is prepared to put on the table a U.S. emissions reduction target in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020,” which roughly translates into a cut of 4% below the emission levels of 1990  (the year traditionally used for comparing the efforts of different countries).

A lot of people are going to be discouraged by this 4% number, which falls woefully short of the 40% cut that science says is needed to avoid dangerous climate change (though Atlanta’s flood victims from this fall might say it’s already too late for that, having suffered through unprecedented fall rains exactly three months after NOAA released a consensus climate science report predicting same).

Likewise, some countries waiting to hear the opening bid from the United States (e.g. China) might now be tempted to low-ball their own ambitions.  But there’s an interesting twist to the offering from the United States, one that might be skillfully exploited by countries seeking to build economic advantage over the United States.  Accordingly, and in the long literary tradition of the modest proposal, I make note of the following opportunity for China and Europe.

While Obama’s goal for 2020 falls way short of what’s needed, not to worry, says Browner, we’ll make up for it down the road, by steeply reducing emissions in the future:

“In light of the President’s goal to reduce emissions 83 percent by 2050, the expected pathway set forth in pending legislation would entail a 30 percent reduction below 2005 levels in 2025, and a 42 percent reduction below 2005 levels in 2030. Both the Senate and the House bills include interim measurements.  They’re slightly different, but they’re fairly similar.”

Back in July the Director of the Congressional Budget Office published this graph in his blog showing how emissions (in covered sectors) would rise until 2017 and then dive, crash dive really, under the House bill.

Estimated U.S. Emissions under the House-passed Bill

With Europe offering to reduce emissions 30% below 1990 levels by 2020,  its hard to ignore how unfair a 4% offering looks from the United States.  But if Obama is willing to lock the U.S. into a crash dive program, Europe and China might take a second look.   By starting on the task of re-tooling their economies now (a task that both the EU and China have actually already started), they will own economic advantage over the U.S. for decades.  In contrast, rather than preparing for a smart, efficient transfer over to clean energy, the U.S. will have to go on a crash diet, shedding economic output for the sake of shedding carbon pollution [and even with that, still pay other countries to make some of our reductions for us, through the use of so-called “offsets” – a controversial practice that some say deliver few real reductions].

The irony behind the U.S. numbers goes even further, however.  The numbers are only as anemic as they are to appease conservatives in the U.S. Senate who claim to be watching out for the U.S. economy, arguing that moving quickly to curb carbon pollution will cripple the U.S. economy.   However, as the graph above illustrates, delay threatens to undermine prosperity in our country for decades.  The International Energy Administration has estimated that every year of global delay will cost the global economy $500 billion.  The only winners from delay are those who profit from pollution – the fossil fuel industry.


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