Green energy: 'US must show the way forward '

Posted: 22 February 2011

Leading environmental economist Robert Repetto, whose new book America's Climate Problem: The Way Forward, is just out, argues that the global  transition to a green economy will not happen unless the United States steps up its own efforts to deal with climate change.

People & the Planet: Most people concede that agreements reached in Cancun last December fell short of what is needed to stabilize the world's climate. Do you think that failure can be turned around?

Repetto: Other major emitting countries will not agree to significant limitations on emissions unless the United States, the second-largest and richest polluter, does so. If U.S. policy turns around, then there'll be a big shift in international negotiations because other major emitting countries are very concerned about climate change.

P&P: Why should America change course? And what about China?

Repetto: All developed countries, except the US, have already taken action and China has actually done more so far to control emissions than the US has. All major emitting countries must cooperate. If America takes action, we can reasonably demand that developing countries do everything possible to reduce emissions without impinging on their economic growth. Fortunately, that's a lot.

P&P:  Gven lack of support in US Congress for this kind of climate policy, is what you've written just wishful thinking?

Repetto: The House did pass a cap-and-trade bill. Action in the Senate is blocked by the filibuster threat and the enormous political spending by energy interests, much of which has funded disinformation campaigns. However, the Administration has authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases and to regulate coal and oil use under existing environmental regulations. If they use this authority vigorously enough, the administration should be able to bring opponents to the table to negotiate a reasonable policy. Meanwhile, it's up to the citizens to oppose new coal plants and to demand that their representatives take action. 

P&P:  What kind of messages might Americans respond to about climate change - why should they be concerned about changes that might not affect them for decades?

Repetto: There are two key reasons. Americans are already being injured by the increasing frequency of more intense storms, floods, hurricanes, heat waves and droughts. Those will just get worse. Also, we're already unleashing processes that accelerate global warming, like the release of methane and carbon stored in Arctic permafrost, which could make climate change impossible to control later on.

P&P:  How could America reduce use of coal and other fossil fuels by 80 percent by 2050 without just shutting down the economy? 

Repetto: People forget that this country has experienced several comparable energy transitions over half-centuries, from water to steam power, from animal traction to motor vehicles, from steam power to electricity. Each time there were doomsayers but America emerged more prosperous. The next transition will be to clean, abundant, domestic renewable energy resources that are rapidly becoming more competitive.

P&P: Wouldn't a transition of that scope require the government virtually to take command of the economy through regulation?

Repetto: Not at all. All that's required is a policy that imposes a fee on carbon emissions, a so-called "price on carbon". Then the government can step back and watch market forces work, as renewable energy producers expand sales, industry and households become more energy-efficient, and electricity generators shift to cleaner fuels.

P&P: Is that a carbon tax, which most people seem to oppose?

Repetto: A better approach would be to put gradually declining limits on sales of fossil fuels, and then let sellers trade those permits. The limits ensure that the transition will proceed on schedule and the trading will ensure that a permit price emerges that allows markets to work efficiently. Though opponents are now demonizing this cap-and-trade approach, America has used it with great success for decades, through Democratic and Republican administrations, to reduce other smog, acid rain and other air pollutants.

P&P: What is likely to happen to the economy if fuel prices rise?

Repetto: Dozens of serious economic studies by many respected independent research groups have found that with such a policy in place the U.S. economy would grow robustly even if  fuel prices do rise. There is absolutely no factual support for politically-motivated doomsday forecasts. In fact, the economy would benefit from rising employment in clean energy industries and people would enjoy cleaner air and reduced danger from climate extremes.

P&P: What can we learn from other disasters America has faced?

Repetto. If left unchecked, the changes will be far beyond any previous experience and the main damages will come from those weather extremes. Unfortunately, America tends to take measures to reduce risks only after disasters strike: think of 9/11, Katrina, and the financial meltdown. We do need to plan with more foresight for the changes that are already inevitable but adaptation alone would not save us from serious harm.

Robert Repetto is Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation, working with its climate and energy programme.  He was for 15 years vice president of the World Resources Institute in Washington DC, directing its work on environmental economics.

America's Climate Problem: The Way Forward by Robert Repetto is published by Earthscan.