Global Warming Solution Needs Policy Plus Technology

July 06, 2006

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson normally makes lots of sense but I think he missed the mark on Wednesday in Global Warming’s Real Inconvenient Truth (free registration required). Samuelson starts with a quote from a column he wrote in 1997:

Global warming may or may not be the great environmental crisis of the next century, but -- regardless of whether it is or isn't -- we won't do much about it.
He then reports on a new study from the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris called Energy Technology Perspectives -- Scenarios & Strategies to 2050. (Irritatingly, the IAE, which is a multilateral organization, is charging 80 Euros for a PDF of their study. For goodness sake, they are a tax-payer supported organization! I can see no justification for charging anything for electronic copies of their research findings. Shame on them!)In any event, Samuelson draws on the IEA projections to support his view that societies will be unwilling to make any hard choices to slow global warming. The only possible solution, he argues, is some new and as yet undiscovered technology that will provide cheap, clean energy.I have a number of problems with the way Samuelson frames his argument. Most strikingly, it seems to be at odds with the IAE’s own conclusions. According to Claude Mandil, the executive director of the IEA, the new study found that "clean and more efficient technologies can return soaring energy-related CO2 emissions to today’s levels by 2050 and halve the expected growth in both oil and electricity demand." In short, much of the solution is already at hand if we had the will to deploy it.More surprisingly, for a columnist who often writes about public policy, Samuelson neglects to discuss the crucial links between policy and technical innovation. He concludes:
The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it's really an engineering problem. The inconvenient truth is that if we don't solve the engineering problem, we're helpless.
Of course, technical innovation is critical. But innovations will not arise quickly enough in the absence of sound public policy to encourage them. Personally I think a good place to start is with an SUV gas tax: steeply accelerated gas taxes, with the highest taxes for the least efficient vehicles (taxes assessed at the pump, by a chip reader embedded in the gas nozzle and a chip embedded in the gas tank). Or perhaps we need an Advance Market Commitment, like the one that CGD has proposed for vaccines, to create incentives for more R&D on clean fuels and carbon sequestration. I don’t pretend to know the answer. But a discussion about which policies would work best is surely the right place to start. Robert Samuelson knows this, of course. Perhaps he will suggest some answers in a future column.


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