Bush's good idea on global warming

A world hungry for innovation should review a plan he adopted in Texas.

Imagine this: The Republican governor of a large, trendsetting state works with leaders of his state legislature from both parties to enact groundbreaking legislation that requires private corporations and others operating in the state to meet stringent pro-green goals. Is this Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, 2007? It could be. But it could also be Gov. George W. Bush in Texas, 1999. The Renewable Portfolio Standards Act adopted by Texas that year required the state's energy retailers to produce 5,000 megawatts of electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

That legislation provided a strong incentive for Texas energy companies to invest in renewables and established firm penalties for those that failed to meet their mandate. By all accounts it jump-started the state's development of alternative energy, particularly wind farms. Nowadays, Texas leads the nation in wind-power generation. Technological innovation can help reconcile economic development and the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that exacerbate global warming – but such innovation is most likely when governments establish firm mandates, not when private companies practice "business as usual."

All of which makes it quite mystifying why, as US president, Mr. Bush has firmly opposed fixed mandates to cut GHGs.

Back in 2001, it was his opposition to international mandates and fear of harming economic growth that led him to keep the US outside the Kyoto Protocol. This international agreement requires its rich-country participants to reduce GHG emissions by 2012 to an average of 5.2 percent below their 1990 level. More recently, at the Sept. 28 meeting on climate change that he convened in Washington, Bush expressed continued opposition to international mandates, saying, "Each nation will design its own separate strategies" to reduce GHGs.

The next three years will be crucial for our planet's increasingly endangered climate. Kyoto is due to run out in 2012. Kyoto was never a full treaty in its own right, but a "protocol" subsidiary to a broader agreement called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, of which the US has remained a part. It will be this body that, starting this December, will convene the complex international negotiations for a follow-on to replace Kyoto in 2012.

This time around, it is even more important that the United States participate in the negotiations in good faith, agreeing up front to be bound like any other nation. People and governments throughout the world have looked askance at America's record of negotiation in Kyoto, where the US held out for, and won, several significant concessions – and then walked away from the agreement that resulted. Of the significant world powers, today only two remain outside Kyoto: the US and Australia.

There are three reasons why the US needs to participate fully and sincerely this time round:

1. The evidence on GHG-related climate change is much fuller, and more worrying, now than it was when Kyoto was being negotiated, in the 1990s.

2. This new agreement will have to be more stringent – and longer term – than Kyoto. Kyoto was not perfect. But it was a useful first attempt to build a global response to dealing with the truly global problem of climate change. Next time, the world, including the US, must do better.

3. For decades, the US has been the world's biggest GHG emitter. That top spot is being overtaken by China, whose economic growth – and increase in GHG emissions – continues to be phenomenal. The post-Kyoto agreement certainly needs to include mandated caps on China's emissions. But China, like several other nations, is very unlikely to agree to be capped unless the US is also fully part of the process.

How much does the world need to reduce its emissions? The key GHG is carbon dioxide (CO2). The world currently emits just under 30 billion metric tons (bmTs) of it each year. Last year, the British government's high-level Stern Review on climate change judged that annual CO2 emissions need to be brought below 5 bmTs if humanity is to stop heating up the environment in this way. Currently, the US alone is emitting just under 6 bmTs a year.

The bottom line? All nations need to work together to bring emission rates radically downward. It has to be a cooperative venture. America's past and present emissions have (unintentionally) inflicted harm on others around the world, and now, foreign emissions are increasingly hurting America, too.

Yes, we will need innovation – at many levels. Conventional definitions of economic growth will have to be reconsidered. But the degree of innovation we can achieve will be strongly affected by laws, regulations, and mandates that structure the incentives of all players in a pro-innovation, pro-green direction. Bush can still play a useful role on this – if only he would follow his own earlier example.

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