Beyond Kyoto: a better way

As delegates gather in Montreal, they should reconsider their whole approach to global warming, say MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER and TED NORDHAUS

Globe & Mail, Monday, November 28, 2005

In January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that one of his top priorities as chairman of the Group of Eight industrialized countries would be to galvanize the G8’s commitment to action on global warming.

Unspoken in that announcement, but obvious to all, was that the real target of Mr. Blair’s advocacy would be U.S. President George W. Bush who, in 2001, withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol regulating greenhouse gas emissions and has since refused to join other world leaders in making binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.

As world leaders arrived at the G8 summit in July there was much anticipation as to what kind of agreement G8 leaders, most especially Mr. Bush, would reach. By the end of the summit, hopes were dashed. The White House succeeded in so watering down the global warming communiqué that it ended up being weaker than the statement Mr. Bush’s father had signed 13 years before. Then, in August, the White House announced its alternative to the Kyoto Protocol regulating greenhouse gases — the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate. One Downing Street official characterized the agreement secretly negotiated by the U.S., China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia as “a slap in the face” designed to undermine Kyoto. But rather than duking it out publicly with Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair changed his tune. In late September the British Prime Minister said that he hoped the world’s nations would “not negotiate international treaties” in the future — a 180-degree change of rhetoric in less than 60 days.

For environmentalists and others, the episode was evidence that, as with his support for the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Blair had once again failed to finesse the Bush administration. Mr. Bush, for his part, had once again shown his disregard for multilateral action, the international community, and the future of the planet.

But in our view, Kyoto’s failure to galvanize action on global warming speaks not to the failure of Mr. Blair or Mr. Bush but rather the failure of environmentalism and the politics of limits.

Global warming did not have to be, a priori, an “environmental” issue. It was made so by environmental advocates who understood global warming originally not so much as an impending global crisis that needed to be addressed by any means necessary but rather as a powerful new argument for restricting activities (such as driving automobiles and burning fossil fuels) that they already wanted to restrict. As such, the solutions to global warming were, from the very start, conceived of as limitations and restrictions — the approach that lies at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol and virtually every other effort to address global warming.

It didn’t have to be that way. Truly addressing the global warming crisis, by almost all accounts, will require a dramatic transformation of the global energy economy. In that transformation lies the possibility of enormous economic growth and wealth creation and the potential to lift living standards for virtually every inhabitant of the planet.

Economists and politicians have known for decades that investments in new energies, from coal and oil to solar and wind, as well as energy efficiency, have a multiplier effect on the economy as a whole. It’s part of the reason why the energy sector is the subject of so much public regulation and investment.

Nobody should understand this better than Tony Blair. It was, after all, Mr. Blair’s idol, Winston Churchill, who suggested after the Second World War that Britain and Europe invest in a joint energy and manufacturing venture to unite the continent. Four years later, the European Coal and Steel Community, precursor to the European Union, was born. Given the obvious success of creating European prosperity and unity through investments in energy, how did international action on global warming get defined around ecological limits instead of around economic possibility? The answer is due, in large part, to the influence of environmentalism.

Mr. Blair’s environmentalist critics are right that Mr. Bush’s Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate was cynically conceived to undermine Kyoto and Mr. Blair. But their myopic insistence that Kyoto — and the environmental ethos of limits — must be at the centre of the debate has been counterproductive.

Mr. Bush’s bluff points the way to a true third way on global warming — an alternative to both continuing to insist upon the failed Kyoto framework or acceding to the Bush administration’s efforts to obstruct international efforts to address global warming. Prime Minister Blair should call Mr. Bush’s bluff — and up the ante. When delegates meet this week in Montreal to discuss Kyoto, Britain should embrace the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and propose that the United States and other G8 countries fund it to the tune of $30-billion per year, creating an Opportunity Fund for Clean Development.

Mr. Blair should see the fund not simply as an environmental solution but also as a central strategy to make poverty history, supported by Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, the debt-relief coalition Jubilee, and the megastar Bono. To underscore the central role that economic development in places like China and India must play, Mr. Blair should call for global leaders to negotiate the Opportunity Fund in Beijing or New Delhi.

The British PM should also speak out in the United States about the Opportunity Fund — just as Churchill gave the first speech proposing a “United States of Europe” in Fulton, Mo., in 1946. A focus on investment and opportunity will excite Americans who believe theirs to be the most innovative nation on Earth.

In the United States, the timing is right. The public is increasingly outraged by high gas prices and the record-breaking $100-billion in oil industry profits. Illinois Senator Barack Obama and Washington Representative Jay Inslee are proposing that a windfall profits tax on oil companies be used to pay for autoworkers’ health care in exchange for fuel economy increases by auto makers — the so-called “health care for hybrids” proposal. Meanwhile, major corporations from General Electric to Wal-Mart to BP are looking for ways to match their public rhetoric and private commitments with political action. Mr. Blair could find plenty of allies, from Beijing to Washington.

To be sure, Kyoto will remain an important framework for ratcheting down emissions, but if we are to give countries a reason to care about and invest in the new energy economy, the old politics of limits must take a backseat to a new politics of possibility.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are managing partners of American Environics and directors of The Breakthrough Institute. Their book The Death of Environmentalism and the Birth of a New American Politics is to be published in 2007.

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