The wrong way to cut greenhouse gases

A U.S. promise to unilaterally reduce CO2 will do nothing to spur developing economies to do the same. Vows from the big non-Western carbon emitters must be secured first for real change to occur.

Published December 17, 2009 from The Los Angeles Times: Opinion.

by David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

To help justify its commitments to dramatically cut U.S. fossil fuel use, Obama administration officials have contended that our national security is at stake. The president argued in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo that vast changes in the Earth’s climate triggered by global warming will lead to widespread economic and social dislocation, instability and more wars. In the hope that setting a good example will spur other nations into similar action, he will announce in Copenhagen a U.S. goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 83% below 2005 levels by 2050. But foreign policy isn’t accomplished by acting unilaterally and hoping others follow.

The U.S. alone — or even the developed world as a whole — cannot stabilize, much less reduce, global CO2 concentrations. On this point, there is universal agreement. Indeed, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently that “U.S. action alone will not impact world CO2 levels.”

U.S. leadership may well be necessary, but America’s moral example in reducing its carbon output will have little impact on the developing world, where uncontrolled carbon emissions are growing the fastest.

The biggest carbon emitters among developing nations — Brazil, China, India and Russia — have already made clear that, while they are prepared to improve the energy efficiencies of their economies (thereby reducing the carbon intensity per unit of GNP), they have no interest in capping their carbon emissions. Given the genuine economic hardship that would result from abandoning the Industrial Age’s carbon-based economies, it is doubtful that even our European allies will follow President Obama’s lead. Indeed, many of them already have failed to meet past emission reduction obligations.

This is hardly surprising. In the George W. Bush years, proponents of unilateral U.S. carbon reductions obscured these enduring geopolitical realities by contending that Bush’s refusal to accept mandatory limits on U.S. carbon emissions was preventing global progress. However, the results of all climate-change-related international conferences held on Obama’s watch make clear the problem was not Bush. Any solution must include the major developing economies, and their opposition to mandatory emission limitations has actually grown since the Obama administration began talking about dramatic unilateral U.S. actions setting an example.

The problem is as basic as human nature. The U.S. cannot obtain the developing world’s participation in painful economic sacrifices without leverage, which it won’t have if it has already committed to reducing its own emissions for the next 40-plus years regardless of what other countries do. The Obama administration is consigning the U.S. to the worst of all possible bargaining positions. If climate change is to be treated as a serious foreign policy concern, lessons should be drawn from other diplomatic contexts in which such unilateral action has proved a resounding failure.

This has been especially true in the area of international trade, where the fundamental principle of reciprocity reigns supreme. No country eliminates its trade barriers without reciprocal and meaningful concessions from trading partners. The United States has advocated free-trade policies for decades, but it also has spent considerable effort and diplomatic capital in creating both global and regional trade regimes — the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement — based on the acceptance and implementation of trade policies by other members. These detailed and comprehensive mutual agreements are, of course, backed by appropriate verification and compliance mechanisms.

The same is true of arms control. All of the major arms limitation agreements of the last 50 years were founded on the reciprocity principle. This applied to every conceivable aspect of controlling the development, manufacture and deployment of weapons systems, whether involving ships, tanks, infantry forces or nuclear missiles, whether offensive or defensive. This principle also governed agreements that limited the permissible types of military activities. Carefully negotiated undertakings that detailed how all parties were to proceed — backed by robust verification mechanisms — invariably proved the only fruitful approach.

These general negotiating principles were reflected with particular clarity in nuclear arms control endeavors, which have long been the centerpiece of U.S. foreign and defense policy. Both Democrat and Republican presidents understood that unilateral disarmament was a bad option because it would leave the U.S. with nothing to trade for the Soviet concessions. Modern history is replete with instances of governments holding on to weapon systems they did not really want so they could be traded away at the opportune moment.

Finally, perhaps the most telling example of unilateral environmental U.S. action failing to achieve a desired foreign policy result is the long and difficult battle to address stratospheric ozone depletion. Initially, the United States led the way with unilateral cuts in ozone-depleting substances, and got nowhere. Our decreases, in fact, were matched by increases from other countries. Genuine ozone layer protection was achieved only after both developed and developing nations agreed to controls as part of the Montreal Protocol in 1987.

There is a further problem. Unilateral U.S. emission reductions would be a massive subsidy to carbon-intensive imports from developing countries, which would be cheaper than the products of carbon-constrained economies. Because developing countries would be loath to relinquish this advantage, and because some of them believe they are fated to replace the United States in world leadership, America’s unilateral sacrifice would make it more difficult to obtain their commitment to carbon controls.

Unilateral action may well be the right option in cases in which the United States itself, given sufficient commitment and will, can achieve a particular goal. In the case of global climate change, however, the United States can do nothing that is in the least effective without the agreement and participation of all of the other major carbon-emitting economies, including Europe, India and China. Until all are on board, unilateral cuts will simply make the American people poorer, with no benefit to anyone but our foreign competitors.

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey are partners in the Washington law office of Baker Hostettler. Both served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

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