The new congressional leadership has promised a "new" agenda for fighting climate change based on reducing the quantities and rate of growth of greenhouse gases (GHG) discharged to the atmosphere. My first question to the Democrats: Where have you been the past few years? My second: How much are you willing to spend to make a political point?

We’re number one

The U.S., with 5% of the world’s population, produces over 20% of the world’s man-made carbon emissions. Many "greens" on both sides of the pond find that imbalance abhorrent and somehow "un-American." But they conveniently fail to mention that U.S. economic activity produces 25% of the world’s wealth, and opportunities and a quality of life that are second to none. In a global context, our emissions are not out of line with our economy’s size and vitality. I’m growing weary of the blame game being played out in Washington and the EU.

In a February speech in Berlin, Kurt Volker, principal deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, spoke unambiguously to his audience of EU officials: "I know there is a deeply held view among many in Europe that the U.S. government . . . doesn’t . . . care about climate change, that we are doing nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that Europe, while perhaps not perfect, is doing a far better job of tackling the issue. This proposition—no matter how simple, no matter how widely held, and no matter how much it fits a pop-culture ‘blame-the-United States’ paradigm—is completely wrong, on every point." I’m beginning to like this guy.

Let’s look at the report card of the U.S., which Time magazine called a "rogue nation" for its withdrawal from Kyoto negotiations in 2001. According to data from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, between 2000 and 2004, total GHG emissions from the EU’s 25 member states increased 2.1% while those from the U.S. grew by just 1.3%.

If you’re the kind of person who sees the glass as half-full, you might say that the EU growth rate over the period was inflated by the admission of member states that get most of their electricity from very dirty coal plants. Actually, the opposite is true—the new members were busy installing modern, clean power plants whose reduced emissions lowered the overall EU rate. Run the numbers without the new guys on the block and the EU would have posted a whopping 2.5% GHG increase over the period.

For additional perspective, realize that the Kyoto target is an 8% cut below 1990 emissions by 2012. Also, bear in mind that the International Energy Agency pegs the growth rate of China’s GHG emissions at nearly 4%. If China doesn’t choke on its own pollution, it will pass both the U.S. and the EU in absolute GHG tonnage by 2009.

Money talks

Of the U.N.’s comparison, Volker said, "This time [2000 to 2004] was a period of rapid economic growth in the U.S. We grew our economy by almost 1.9 trillion dollars. That’s about the equivalent of adding Italy to the U.S. economy. And we increased our population by 11.3 million people—adding more than the population of Greece. And yet our emissions grew only 1.3%. That tells you a lot about how the U.S. economy is already changing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Volker used another comparison to put the U.S. actions to fight global GHGs in perspective. "From FY 2001 to the end of FY 2006, the U.S. devoted more than $29 billion to climate science, technology, international assistance, and incentive programs. The 2006 GDP of Bulgaria was just over $28 billion. So essentially, over the past five years, the U.S. has taken more than the economic output of Bulgaria in a year and put it against the challenge of climate change."

The only two realistic legislative options for limiting or reducing GHG emissions are a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions. The first is politically suicidal because it could double the price of gasoline, and the second would be easy to attack as giving some companies in the "smokestack" industries a "license to pollute."

I don’t give either option much of a chance, with the U.S. economy still tightening and jobs still moving offshore. What’s more, EU members and Japan aren’t likely to meet the "mandatory" limits assigned them by Kyoto at a party to which India and China weren’t invited. California’s approach to global warming—strong-arming gencos to switch to natural gas—is a short-sighted solution that will ultimately be as costly to its citizens as the state’s ill-conceived experiment in deregulation.

KISS and make up

Over the next 20 months, I expect a lot more political posturing than promised progress on climate change. Congress will pound the drum to keep the true believers in step through November 2008. But real progress will be slow, and as hard to detect as the sound of grass growing in a field behind the stage of a heavy-metal fest.

Interested in a really simple proposal? Just tell the world that the U.S. will reduce (or increase) its GHG emissions at the same rate as the EU from 2007 forward. Let’s see which economy can respond to the challenge. Winner gets bragging rights for the following year.
—Dr. Robert Peltier, PE Editor-in-Chief