Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More Than Talk?

In his column in today's Washington Post, Robert Samuelson expresses skepticism that the current rhetoric about reducing greenhouse gas emissions will deliver much in the way of actual cuts, characterizing a broad collection of policy initiatives as "Prius Politics." While I share some of his skepticism about climate goals that lack both enabling and enforcement mechanisms, he's no more than half-right, here, and that half looks like a necessary prerequisite for tougher measures that would actually begin to deliver the proposed reductions. I also think he underestimates the impact on actual emissions, even without a gas tax or cap & trade.

Mr. Samuelson sees a divergence between the rhetoric of dramatic greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and the inexorable forces of population and economic growth that have been driving emissions steadily upward around the world. This isn't just a question of China's enormous pool of potential consumers, who are starting to acquire the energy-intensive middle class trappings we take for granted. It's also a function of Americans choosing homes that are 60% larger than in 1970, despite declining average household size. Even with reductions in the marginal energy input per dollar of GDP, economic growth and increasing wealth will translate into higher emissions, unless we take concrete steps to reduce the latter.

However, Mr. Samuelson appears to discount the creation of a national consensus on climate change as a necessary precondition for enacting the legislation and regulations that will actually cut emissions. Attitudes toward this issue have come a long way in the last two years, but it still isn't a high priority for most Americans, who worry more about Iraq, terrorism and the economy. That's why, as he notes in his column, the Congress has focused on more indirect measures such as CAFE and cap & trade, rather than carbon or gas taxes that might be political suicide for the party in power. The scope for leaders to get far ahead of the public on this or any other issue is more limited than it was a generation ago.

That doesn't mean that emerging green attitudes lack consequences for real emissions. As the Wall Street Journal reports today, planned coal-fired power plants are being deferred or cancelled, because of environmental concerns. Every cancelled coal plant reduces future emissions in two ways: directly, from a stream of flue gas that will never exist, and indirectly, as constraints on baseload electricity generation--which wind turbines can't produce, and for which new nuclear plants are at least a decade off--will push power prices higher and deter the growth in electricity consumption. Meanwhile, concerns about emissions are becoming sufficiently mainstream for GE and other issuers to begin offering green credit cards, which will provide emissions offsets, rather than airline miles or cash back.

It's good to be reminded that high hopes and bold talk alone won't solve the climate problem, even though changing attitudes are already starting to have consequences for projects and sectors that emit greenhouse gases. But neither is this a problem that lends itself to quick solutions, imposed without broad support from the electorate. Such an approach would likely unravel the fist time the economy slowed, or energy prices spiked to new highs. In the long run, that could be a lot worse for the climate than a few years of toothless targets.

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