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Why U.S. leadership on climate change is still a good idea

The day that climate change negotiations begin in Bonn, Germany, a few days after meetings of "major economy" (and major emitting) countries, and with a major climate bill in the United States working its way through Congress, Harvard economist Martin Feldstein argues that a U.S. cap-and-trade system as set out by this legislation just isn't worth it. This comes after the release of a report that found that 300,000 people a year die from climate change disasters and that $125 billion are lost from the economy. In the face of these numbers, Feldstein's alleged cap-and-trade "tax" of $1,600 per American family seems almost niggling. (economics credentials notwithstanding, though, Feldstein's numbers in piece are not entirely trustworthy; he glaringly errs in describing Congress' Waxman-Markey bill as mandating CO2 reductions to 83 percent of 2005 levels by 2020, when in fact it calls for reaching these levels only by 2050).

But even granting that American consumers will be affected by the cap-and-trade system -- calling it a "tax" seems a rather subversive way of describing the market dynamics that will naturally follow, on all sectors, from greening the economy -- Feldstein's opposition to U.S. efforts to curb climate change is both common and underwhelming. He argues that because global warming affects the entire globe, of which the United States makes up only a small part (but fully a quarter of CO2 production), U.S. emissions reductions are not worthwhile until other major emitters commit to similar steps.

This is a familiar argument, and it is appealing for obvious reasons. Why should the United States suffer the costs of enacting tough climate legislation if developing economies like China and India are going to pump CO2 into the air anyway? The key is the word "until;" if Feldstein had argued that the United States should not pursue strict regulations unless China and India do as well, he would have been in the right. Global warming is only going to be slowed by all countries taking action. But to wait until every country in the world commits to steep CO2 reductions is a fool's errand; the planet only gets warmer, and we can't sit around waiting for everyone to stand up in unison. The United States has a chance to lead this effort -- and leap ahead in green technology in the process -- that the Obama Administration, committed to improving U.S. relations with the world, would be foolhardy to pass up.

While admittedly frustrating in the face of looming deadlines and an ever-warming planet, the progress that countries are making toward a global agreement, is also encouraging. As one delegate in Bonn told Reuters, "the fact that [the meeting's draft text]'s been criticised from all sides probably means it's balanced overall." The strongest objections at Bonn thus far, in fact, seem to come from activists dressed up as snowmen and cactuses. I'd take China and India as negotiating partners any day.

(image from flickr user Step it Up 2007 under a Creative Commons license)

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How 17% is kind of like 25%

We've been remiss in covering the so-called Major Economies Forum, the gathering of the world's top 17 greenhouse gas emitters that concluded in Paris yesterday.  And while some of the big economies may be calling for emissions reductions targets less stringent than, say, small island nations would prefer, the gap between the United States and Europe may be shrinking.  Even though Germany and France are urging 25-40% reductions by 2020, compared to the goal of 17% set out by the still ambitious (by U.S. standards) Waxman-Markey climate bill in the U.S. House, Obama climate envoy Todd Stern suggests these numbers are more similiar than they may appear (via Andy Revkin):

The United States is proposing to make a seismic change in U.S. policy,” he said. “The president is proposing to do that, and Congress as well is in the middle of working on this. The level of reductions we’re talking about, the level of effort we’re talking about from where we are, from a few years back before where we are, is about the same as what Europe is proposing to do.”

The key, of course, for the United States no less than the other 16 major emitters, is achieving what is possible politically.  But political will, Al Gore assures us, is as renewable a resource as he would have us implementing to power our homes.

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What to burn in the developing world?

As I was cleaning out my feeds this morning, I stumbled across this brilliant article on Black Carbon, part of a series on "stopgap measures that could limit global warming."  

Black Carbon, aka "soot," produced by primitive cooking stoves in the developing world, accounts for up to 20 percent of global warming according to some scientists and represents "low-hanging fruit" -- the most possible bang for the buck (in regard to both cost and effort) in confronting climate change.

Not two minutes later, this report popped up on BBC tv (BBC, why no embed?) about researchers at Nottingham University who have discovered a way to make fuel out of banana peels (abundant in many parts of the developing world) and sawdust using no specialized equiptment.  Aside from dramtically reducing the occurrence of comic accidents, burning banana peels could also reduce the use of firewood as fuel, limiting deforestation and, therefore, addressing climate change. 

Count me skeptical that, if this is as cheap and easy as the researchers suggest, savvy entrepreneurs in the developing world wouldn't have already figured it out.  Nonetheless, I like this coverage because it focuses on access to cheap, renewable, and environmentally friendly sources of energy in the developing world, an issue that doesn't get enough air time and dramatically affects both climate change and the MDGs.  The real answer? I like solar cookers, but that may just be because I'm loathe to disagree with the Boonstra.

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Maldives to Become Carbon neutral

Via UN News Center, I've just learned that the small Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives has pledged to become the first country in the world to go carbon-neutral.    

This is significant because Maldives is probably the most vulnerable nation in the world to climate change.  Some 400,000 inhabitants live on small islands that rise no more than six feet above sea level.  Even the most modest sea-level rise could literally wipe the country off the map.  Of course, compared to major economies of the world,  Maldives is responsible for a negligible  amount of carbon emissions.  Still, it is heartening to see that the country with the most at stake in climate change is willing to lead by example.

Photo from flickr user romsrini