The passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (Acesa) in the US House of Representatives on Saturday has been hailed by US President Barack Obama as a “historic” step. But even before the legislation becomes law, daggers have been drawn.
The legislation provides for a 17% cut in emissions from the 2005 level by 2020. This figure will go up to 83% by 2050. It also requires polluters to obtain permits, and works as a cap-and-trade system. By past levels of commitment, it marks a new beginning, but it falls woefully short of the leadership expected from the US. The debate among two US economists, Paul Krugman and Martin Feldstein, is symptomatic of this.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
In 2006, the US was the second biggest fossil fuel emissions/carbon dioxide emitter after China, data from the US department of energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center shows. It spewed some 1,592.5 million tonnes (mt) of carbon into the atmosphere in 2005. In per capita terms, the emission level stood at 5.16 tonnes in 2006. Since 1800, the country has emitted 80 billion tonnes of carbon/carbon equivalents. If Acesa becomes law, then by 2020 it will reduce its emissions by 270.7mt.
On the one hand, Feldstein has argued that Acesa will be a meaningless and expensive piece of legislation. He says the US now accounts for less than 25% of the global production of carbon dioxide. A 15% reduction by 2020 will only result in a 4% reduction in global carbon dioxide output—this, he says, is quite meaningless. This is a laboured construction. Statistical skulduggery can’t change the fact that the US is a huge carbon dioxide emitter, both in absolute and per capita terms.
Krugman, on the other hand, sees the utility of Acesa. He says the law can be used as a stick to beat developing countries such as India into agreeing to binding emissions.
In 2005, India emitted 388mt of carbon. Even after the US reduces emissions under Acesa, in 2020 it would still be emitting 3.4 times more than India did in 2005. Developing countries are at best “late emitters” that began industrializing only in the mid-20th century, by which time the Western countries had polluted their way to development. It does not mean that they should continue polluting as ever, but that equity issues should be blended into any global agreement on emission caps.
Before any deal is inked, the equity issue should be debated carefully at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December.
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