The 2016 Earth Day signing of the “Climate Protection Treaty” at the UN was supposed to symbolize the day when world leaders officially declared war on climate change then Donald Trump was elected and reality caught up with the fantasy of the world’s political elites. By adopting the so-called Paris Agreement, world leaders hoped to address the hazards of human accelerated global warming and climate change before the opportunity to address global warming through emissions cuts is lost. They also hoped to circumvent public opposition by using international law to lock countries into commitments that are likely to cause a number of economic complications.
Trump’s willingness to entertain the Paris Agreement is odd given his domestic policy preference, thus there is only one outcome for the treaty under his leadership. Not only has Trump been a staunch critic of international endeavors, e.g. he is the poster child for anti-globalists, his domestic policies have taken a strong anti-regulation, anti-environmental tone. Even if Trump accepts the Paris Agreement in an effort to bolster his Administration’s diplomatic standing, a policy agenda that seeks to gut the EPA, expand the gas and oil industries, and reduce taxes on industry cannot honor the climate accord. An alternative approach to the framework laid out in the Climate Protection Treaty may, however, be used to garner the support of men like Mr. Trump.
The costs of climate change and the costs of stopping climate change will be the burden of all Peoples, yet world leaders have excluded their Peoples from the solution-making process. There are a lot of people who want to protect the environment and eliminate pollution, but derailing the economies of the world to do that makes them unwilling to accept current policy proposals. Limited public support for the costly, unreliable solutions proposed ensure the Paris Agreement will ultimately fail. In the end, world leaders will only manage to undermine the legitimacy of international law by forcing illiberal economic policies onto nations already driving away from international governance.
In terms of economics and politics, only one government of the world’s top five polluters is honestly willing and able to aggressive reduce emissions. Where the Chinese leadership is willing to address the causes of climate change in hopes of diverting the long-term consequences of climate change to China, India, Russia, Brazil, and the US are not likely to address climate change, especially if doing so hurts their economies. China is motivated by the civil unrest and instability it will face when climate change undermines its ability to provide for its People’s most basic needs. When climate change agreements cost Chinese workers their jobs, thus inviting civil unrest and instability, however, Beijing will reverse its commitments.
Regrettably, the biggest problem with the political approach to climate change is that world leaders do not see the threat of climate change in terms of economics and technology. World political leaders have been able to identify the goal of limiting global warming through greenhouse gas emissions cuts, yet they fail to detail the technological and economic means to achieve that goal. When it costs less to pollute, industries will pollute. When it costs more to pollute, industries will try to pollute less in order to save or earn more money from their waste. This is why the regulatory approach to pollution is to fine violators, thus raising the cost of pollution.
In a globalized economy, this means industries are pressured to move where the cost of polluting is less. In other words, there are no economic incentives for nations to reduce their pollution and even less for them to subsidize poorer countries. The effects of climate change will disproportionately cost geographically vulnerable, poorer, and more densely populated nations the most; whereas, preventing climate change will disproportionately cost wealthy nations more under the current Climate Protection Treaty. Not only will wealthier nations have to commit to larger reductions than poorer and less developed nations, they will also be required to compensate underdeveloped countries, so they can address the costs of climate change.
It is reasonable and understandable why poor and developing nations want the already rich developed world to pay for climate change. Developed countries benefited the most from pollution by building their economies at the expense of everyone. Should they embrace the same costs and restrictions without proper compensation as developed nations, third world countries will either fail to blossom into first world countries or make richer nations even richer as they develop into relatively weaker economic powers. In other words, they want the same opportunity to prosper as the developed world did. This view is, however, illogical and counterproductive as rich country have no direct incentive to spend money on the needs of poorer countries.
Even if the tax dollars of developed nations are not siphoned off by corrupt and incompetent leaders of underdeveloped countries, recipient nations will struggle to compensate for climate change as money alone does not solve problems. If subsidies are restricted to efforts that address climate change, they would be a huge boon for transnational corporations in need of buyers for the “green technology” they develop. In essence, this would allow big businesses to funnel taxpayer dollars through underdeveloped nations into their pockets, which would circumvent the needs of the impoverished and create new opportunities for waste, abuse, and fraud.
At best, recipients of climate change funds will use what money they get to help develop their economies. This will, in turn, likely just create new sources of greenhouse gases. For many impoverished nations, however, the monies will be used to provide their Peoples with famine aid. Unfortunately, foreign dollars will only subsidize the entrenched and increased needs of the impoverished, yet fail to solve underlying economic problems. Subsidizing governments of underdeveloped nations may even perpetuate poverty by denying individuals and small startups the cost-cutting measure that is polluting.
On the other hand, developed countries would be wise to follow the example of underdeveloped countries. Instead of looking at efforts to address global warming and climate change as a political commitment to the environment, they should treat climate change as an economic opportunity. World leaders must move beyond diplomatic commitments and punitive measures that impose costs onto businesses. In other words, world leaders should be exploring ways to help cultivate new technologies that can reduce energy use and propagate cheap, clean energy to transform wastes like air pollution into profitable industries.
The Obama Administration’s embattled “Clean Power Plan,” for example, originally sought to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by an average of 30 percent by 2030 with specific targets for each state. Although the amount each state had to reduce their carbon footprint varied under the proposal, the overall outcome remained the same, including the harm to the economy. The EPA originally announced rules that would limit the allowable amount of carbon dioxide emissions for new power plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt of electricity for natural gas power plants and 1,100 pounds per megawatt of electricity for coal power plants.
In order to achieve reductions in emissions, proponents of these caps want power producers to turn to carbon capture technology. Unfortunately, these technologies are only now beginning to be commercialized on a large scale. Consequently, those new standards were premature. The most advanced, lowest carbon emitting power plants at the time produced around 1,800 pounds per megawatt of power. Carbon capture technology prevents carbon from entering the atmosphere. Captured carbon can also be used to produce byproducts like ethanol. Unfortunately, carbon capture technology adds costs to electricity production, unless the value of any potential byproducts can equal or exceed the cost of using the technology.
All emerging technologies need time to reach a point of equilibrium where the costs and manufacturing capacity of such products are able to approximate their intrinsic value. Premature regulatory pushes for technologies create artificial demand that lead to unstable prices. In other words, a push to rapidly force these technologies into the marketplace can create unnecessary price spikes for consumers and electricity producers while offering little return benefit for the increased costs. The consequences are increased costs and an unwillingness to adopt newer technologies, which prevents further decreases in pollution while further increasing costs through an ongoing lack of efficiency.
The Obama Administration’s effort to reduce emissions for new power plants would have negligible benefits to the environment, because they only apply to future power plants. Should these regulations be extended to already existing power plants, the environmental benefits over the next few months or years would also be minimal. As such, the most prudent action is to roll these regulations out in a smarter fashion. If a limit of 1,800 pounds per megawatt is achievable now, all new power plants should be limited to, or slightly below, this amount. Adding a carrot to this stick, power plants should receive tax credits for reducing their emissions to, at, or below the 1,100 pound limit.
A progressive tightening of tax credits and standards would incentivize further progress. This approach would help foster the construction of newer, more efficient power plants that can replace old power plants, which is important as the US is light-years from shedding our reliance on coal power, which is also true for the rest of the world. Moreover, this is the kind of economic and technological approach that climate change efforts need to embrace, if world leaders hope to successfully address accelerated global warming and climate change.
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