Friday, June 01, 2007

Financial Times Editorial Comment: Leading from the rear on emissions

Financial Times Editorial Comment: Leading from the rear on emissions
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: June 1 2007 03:00 | Last updated: June 1 2007 03:00

George W. Bush is justly famous for his tendency cheerily to dismiss uncomfortable realities, but even by his standards, his comments yesterday on climate change showed astonishing chutzpah. The Bush administration has consistently obstructed progress in fighting climate change: first withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol; then attempting to argue that the science was too dubious a basis for action; finally arguing for a voluntary approach that was bound to prove inadequate. Yet listening to Mr Bush now, one would have thought that the US had long led the charge against climate change. It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Mr Bush's only firm proposal was to get the key players to sit around the table within the next 18 months, with the aim of agreeing a global emissions target. By US standards this is radical. The rest of the industrialised world already has such a target, of course, and has had it for over a decade. It is set out in the 1996 Kyoto agreement, which Mr Bush himself has done everything in his power to destroy.

Mr Bush has at last accepted the idea that tackling climate change requires a global framework. As such, this is important and welcome. Yet his conversion after a 10-year delay hardly demonstrates US leadership.

Mr Bush is right to insist that China and India eventually play their part in reducing emissions. Both remain poor countries, however, and will not act any time soon. That will not change until the US takes the lead rather than asserting that it is already a leader.

Mr Bush is also correct in identifying technological progress as the key to reducing emissions. Yet he should have acknowledged that innovations large and small respond to incentives. Mr Bush had few of those to offer. His proposed pow-wow between industrial leaders is harmless enough, but will hardly spur risky and costly technological breakthroughs. His mix of government spending and regulation showed a strange faith in the power of the command economy.

The key incentive for innovation should be a credible price on carbon, whether through emissions permits or, more practically, a carbon tax. Mr Bush showed no sign of grasping this.

The US government's attitude towards climate change has been so irresponsible that it is tempting to embrace any progress. It is indeed welcome that the US seems to be engaged in the discussion of what comes after Kyoto. But at next week's Group of Eight meeting, Mr Bush should not be praised too much for taking his first baby steps.


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