Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hot Air in Bali and Global Warming

Comment is Free in the Guardian 10 December
The Bush administration is practicing a climatic form of coitus interruptus in Bali. It has made it plain that whenever something substantial looks like it's happening - it will withdraw. Its delegation is talking about a "road map" to climate protection, which is doubly ironic. The US has still has not found its way to the clearly signposted Kyoto after 10 years, and its other great cartographical exercise, the Middle East road map, has been wandering lost in the desert for a similar period.

We should of course welcome that domestic and international pressure has weighed enough on President Bush to send a delegation and pretend to be concerned, but it is clear that he is doing a sort of reverse Galileo. In the face of all the evidence, he still does not believe that his chums in the mining, auto and oil industries can cause climatic change while doing God's work - making money and keeping him in office.

We should also welcome a shift away from unilateralism. Instead of giving a finger to the world, bereft of Australian support, the US is once again trying to recruit developing countries like China and India to hide behind, even while at home it points to them as the bad guys, whose rapid increase in their carbon footprint would be at the expense of what is left of American industry.

In fact, even under Bill Clinton, America's ideological, indeed theological, refusal to countenance carbon taxes or binding multinational limits own emissions has shaped the international discourse - while paving the way for dodgy carbon-trading schemes that make subprime mortgage-backed bonds look rock solid in comparison, or highly subsidised bio-ethanol schemes that loot the US Treasury to dole out corporate welfare to midwestern agribusiness.

In the sacred name of the free markets, carbon trading raises a Byzantine structure of offsets, regulation and consequent evasion of emission limits. If there is a road map, it should point toward the real market-based solution. That is to tax the fuel, not the emissions, increasing the cost of carbon-based fuels to encourage efficiency.

Most industrialised countries outside the US are already on the way. For years they have been making more money in taxes on petrol than the producing companies have had in royalties. They should be charging carbon taxes and forcing efficiencies on reluctant Opec. And the oil producers have been onside with the US on most of the climate change issues, but in practice, by bringing oil up to $100 a barrel, they are doing the world a favour. In fact, increasing prices even more should not only benefit them in the short term by making larger profits from smaller production, it also pushes back the fateful day when the oil pumps gurgle dry and they have nothing left to sell.

Increasing energy prices makes alternative, renewable, sources of energy more economically feasible. In the US, where gasoline is cheaper than cola, increasing taxes to a level close to Europe would force Detroit to make more efficient vehicles if it wanted to survive, far more so than technical limits.

Instead of tax breaks for ethanol, the government should support technological development that could help developing countries do their part in reducing carbon consumption.

Opec members are not our customary candidates for green canonisation, but they could be! Indeed, for inadvertent collateral benefits we should doff our hats to George Bush, whose invasion of Iraq without thinking of the economic consequences and constant hints of attacking Iran have done so much to help Opec raise carbon prices to a sustainable level.

Read all the latest comment on the UN climate change conference here. For all coverage of the summit on Guardian Unlimited, click here

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