The Theoretical US Climate Change Advantage

Interesting news comes from the Danish commentary weekly Information, best summarized by the lede from a recent article by Jørgen Steen Nielsen:

The EU punks the American government on climate questions, and the USA is behind due to the Bush administration. But when it comes to measures for the coming years, the EU has nothing for the Americans to hear, say experts.

(Yes, I have to assume that that Danish punker corresponds to “punks,” from “to punk,” as in “to rag on, to give someone a hard time about,” even though that meaning of “punk” is some rather obscure American street-slang – with which I myself am nonetheless familiar from the past, by the way. That’s simply the meaning called for by the context.)

The ultimate point here is a counterintuitive one. As Nielsen notes, the EU in particular loves to upbraid the American authorities for dragging their feet on anti-climate change measures, and it’s true that there was absolutely no progress on this during the George W. Bush years while the Europeans already succeeded in reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions somewhat compared to the 1990 baseline. But going forward, US “ambitions” for addressing climate change can actually be regarded as superior to those of Europe.

The key element here is the Waxman-Markey bill on climate change and carbon credits, which passed the US House of Representatives in June and which President Obama hopes to have signed by the time he heads off to the great international climate-change summit in Copenhagen coming up at the beginning of December. On the face of things, the seven percent reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions that that piece of legislation aims for pales before stated EU objectives of a 20% reduction by the year 2020, and even a 30% reduction if other developed countries agree to accomplish roughly the same.

But Nielsen engages here a couple of independent environmental experts to look into these matters more deeply; the result is not so much that the US plans (again, as embodied in Waxman-Markey) come out looking better, but that EU plans come out looking worse. For one thing, the EU is already on-line to fulfill its obligations for greenhouse gas reduction to 2020 under the Kyoto Treaty, namely by 8% from the 1990 baseline, so its new ambition to accomplish 20% instead only ups the ante by another 12%. But the main thing is that EU law allows countries to gain credit towards fulfilling their greenhouse gas-reduction obligations by purchasing “CO2 credits” from undeveloped lands which naturally do not pollute as much, as a substitute for actually taking measures to reduce those gases at home. (One expert also adds that those CO2 credits are often bogus, i.e. do not really represent true CO2 emission reduction.) Under Waxman-Markey, the US can also buy such “CO2 credits,” but they cannot be used to fulfill the mandtory reduction quotas. Finally, Waxman-Markey includes an interesting provision earmarking some of the money the US Government expects to earn from selling carbon credits to domestic businesses to create a fund devoted to the preservation of (greenhouse gas-eating) natural forests in undeveloped lands. This is supposedly a highly-effective measure, and there’s nothing similar to it in anything the EU does.

Ah . . . But Will It Pass in the First Place?

The general assessment going forward, then, is that the US is set to make greater anti-climate change progress than the Europeans – again, under the assumption of Waxman-Markey. Ay, but there’s the rub . . . in a sidebar to the article, entitled “USA’s climate law can have decisive consequences for the climate summit,” Nielsen basically undercuts his argument in the main article by showing how doubtful it is that that the Waxman-Markey bill will be able to pass the hurdle that is the US Senate. For one thing, it’s a well-known fact by now that it takes at least a super-majority of 60 to pass anything there. That total may be unreachable because several Democratic Senators look at that legislation with a wary eye, fearing that it could destroy manufacturing jobs in their states. Or it could simply be watered-down to enable it to pass, in which case Nielsen’s entire analysis in the main article similarly goes out the window.

He cites John Kerry, chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, as stressing that Waxman-Markey or any similar environmental bill should not even be brought to a vote before the Senate unless its sponsors are certain that it will pass, lest a legislative failure put off sentiment in the Senate for doing anything about climate change for years. In fact, Kerry is already worried enough to be thinking about a “Plan B”: let Obama go to Copenhagen without any US-passed climate-change legislation, and instead use the results and ringing declarations from that summit to then go back and pressure the Senate to finally pass it.

Sound lame to you? (No wonder Kerry lost the presidency in 2004 – although maybe he is only being realistic.) It also sounds lame to an unnamed climate-change expert from the World Wildlife Fund whom Nielsen quotes: “[A] clear American position is a decisive precondition for a climate agreement in Copenhagen. If the Americans bring nothing? [Then] forget everything about a Copenhagen agreement.”

Still, that dispiriting result seems to be a very real danger. Until then, though, you Europeans need to stop all your lecturing of the Americans: what they theoretically desire to enact as anti-climate change legislation, at least, is superior to what you actually have enacted.

UPDATE: I was wrong! “To punk” has now seemingly made the mainstream.

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