Don’t be fooled in Copenhagen

If you gained 50 pounds in 2009, would it make sense to pledge to gain only 30 pounds more in 2010? That’s essentially what China and India have promised at the current climate talks in Copenhagen.

No climate treaty will succeed in reducing emissions unless it includes meaningful cuts from all of the world’s largest emitters. On our current trajectory — what modelers call a “business-as-usual” scenario — by the end of the century, developing countries will account for more than two-thirds of the carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere.

Faced with this reality, China and India have proposed voluntary cuts in their greenhouse gas “emissions intensity.” Emissions intensity is a ratio between emissions and gross domestic product. China recently offered a 40-45 percent drop in emissions intensity while India offered a 20-25 percent cut.

The numbers sound impressive, and many proponents of a new treaty in Copenhagen have hailed them as significant progress, but a closer look shows that this proposal is about as serious as a banana-split diet.

Economies naturally become more efficient as they grow. Efficiency improvements and infrastructure become more cost effective as economies of scale increase, and industries develop experience that allows them to reduce waste. As a result, an economy’s emissions intensity naturally declines with growth.

The question then is, when China and India offer to cut their emissions intensities, are they offering any cuts at all or are they just predicting what will naturally occur?

According to both the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency, they haven’t offered anything at all. Based on business-as-usual practices, EIA and IEA predicted a 40-45 percent decline in emissions intensity from China and a 32-43 percent decline from India.

China’s proposal is therefore equivalent to its business-as-usual projection, and India’s proposal, unbelievably, is less than what is expected to happen anyway.

And don’t be fooled by the declining emissions intensity, total emissions from China and India are going to skyrocket. EIA and IEA predict a 74-89 percent surge in overall emissions from China and a robust 164-174 percent jump from India.

The combined increase in emissions from China in India between now and 2020 is expected to be greater than the U.S.’s total emissions in that year. How can an agreement that allows for that much emissions growth lead to reduced global emissions?

Worse still, neither country is willing to agree to international verification of their emissions, so the international community is asked to accept on faith that both countries have met their targets.

By comparison, when President Barack Obama flies to Copenhagen this week, he plans to pledge an absolute cut in U.S. emissions of 17 percent. These cuts would be subject to international verification.

I’m opposed to a mandatory cap, preferring instead to encourage technological advancements that will reduce emissions over time without the economic hardship that arbitrary near-term caps will cause. But if we do agree to mandatory caps, they have to be equitable across the world’s economies.

That doesn’t mean that developed and developing countries have to agree to the same reductions or that national circumstances should be ignored, but it does mean that we can’t take seriously China’s pledge to “limit” emissions growth to an 89 percent increase over the next 10 years.

My opposition to these latest proposals from Asia is essentially for the same reasons as my opposition to the original Kyoto climate accord: It puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to third-world competitors that already siphon jobs from our economy through low wages.

President Barack Obama and other world leaders have already conceded that the Copenhagen talks will be a failure. If these talks have any hope of setting the stage for future successes, all of the world’s major economies have to be prepared to make similar sacrifices. We also all have to stop pretending that gaining less weight is the same thing as weight loss.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is ranking member on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

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