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    Who has seen the wind?

    Bjorn Lomborg has an op-ed in the WaPo about proposed climate-change policies, which, he argues, will be bad for the world’s poor (via Hit and Run). Enlightened energy policy is being used as an excuse for increased protectionism.

    The struggle to generate international agreement on a carbon deal has created a desire to punish “free riders” who do not sign on to stringent carbon emission reduction targets. But the greater goals seem to be to barricade imports from China and India, to tax companies that outsource, and to go for short-term political benefits, destroying free trade.

    This is a massive mistake. Economic models show that the global benefits of even slightly freer trade are in the order of $50 trillion — 50 times more than we could achieve, in the best of circumstances, with carbon cuts. If trade becomes less free, we could easily lose $50 trillion — or much more if we really bungle things. Poor nations — the very countries that will experience the worst of climate damage — would suffer most.

    Aside from trade barriers, there’s the sheer improbability that the goals being trumpeted can be achieved. Lomborg specifically mentions Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s promises:

    Japan’s commitment in June to cut greenhouse gas levels 8 percent from its 1990 levels by 2020 was scoffed at for being far too little. Yet for Japan — which has led the world in improving energy efficiency — to have any hope of reaching its target, it needs to build nine new nuclear power plants and increase their use by one-third, construct more than 1 million new wind-turbines, install solar panels on nearly 3 million homes, double the percentage of new homes that meet rigorous insulation standards, and increase sales of “green” vehicles from 4 percent to 50 percent of its auto purchases.

    Japan’s new prime minister was roundly lauded this month for promising a much stronger reduction, 25 percent, even though there is no obvious way to deliver on his promise. Expecting Japan, or any other nation, to achieve such far-fetched cuts is simply delusional.

    It’s not that people don’t know that underneath all the upbeat sloganeering. Several years ago, when the Kyoto Protocol was the big thing, the Asahi carried this story:

    With the landmark Kyoto Protocol on global warming finally taking effect today, Japan probably should own up to a major embarrassment: that it may well be unable to meet its obligations under the treaty.

    This possibility, suggested by an Asahi Shimbun survey, contrasts sharply with the fanfare that greeted Japan’s decision to hold an international conference on climate change in 1997 in Kyoto to set reduction goals.

    Under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan has agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions between fiscal 2008 and 2012 by an average 6 percent from the fiscal 1990 level.

    The Asahi Shimbun established that only a few prefectural and municipal governments have done anything about it. In fact, a nationwide survey found that only three of the 47 prefectural governments and seven of the 13 major cities can actually boast decreases in their greenhouse gas emissions.

    Also, latest statistics offered by about half the prefectural and municipal governments surveyed showed double-digit increases over the fiscal 1990 level in greenhouse gas emissions.

    Unlike the central government, prefectural and major municipal governments are not obligated to establish emission reduction goals, and so are still not feeling the heat.

    Grand-scale pronouncements are easy. Putting them into effect at ground level without aftershocks that the economy might not be able to absorb is less easy. And note that, as Lomborg states, Japan is already very good at energy efficiency. The Japanese occupy a resource-poor archipelago; despite being rich, they’re used to relying on ingenuity and near-obsessive parsimony to make the most of what they have. They are very good at it. But there are limits to what a modern, industrialized country of 127 million people can cut down on and still function. The increased use of nuclear power sounds great as far as I’m concerned (though one hopes that it will be accompanied by increased rigor in enforcement of safety standards), but it takes a while to get plants online. And that’s an awful lot of wind turbines.

    Learning to do more with less is always a good thing. So is caring for the environment. But for all the talk about how responding to the greenhouse effe…oops! global war…oops! climate change…means we’re entering a new era, what we really seem to be seeing is a lot of recycling of long-standing political wish lists wrapped in new (at least 50% recycled material!) packaging. And unsurprisingly, the world’s poor stand to get screwed yet again while developed-country politicians curry favor with their constituents.

    2 Responses to “Who has seen the wind?”

    1. Jon says:

      Shouldn’t it be possible to work on certain things that would be additive to the economy and would also benefit the environment? For instance, if Japan needs 9 new nuclear reactors, get building! If it needs to increase the “green” portion of its auto fleet, get buying/subsidizing/whatever it is that big governments do to get people doing what they want.
      Doesn’t really address your premise, but at least it should help everyone who builds, sells, services and/or uses these things, thus adding to consumer and business spending.

    2. Sean says:

      Well, a lot of environmentalists are against nuclear power, for one thing. And a lot of “green” technology really just isn’t economical. Hence the subsidizing and the constant questions by free-market crabs like me why the government needs to distort people’s economic decision-making when it’s not clear these are the only ways to preserve the environment.

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