The Global Warming Gap

President Bush’s overseas trip has done nothing to narrow the gap between his administration and Europe on global warming. For their part, the Europeans accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made gases are heavily responsible for the warming of Earth’s atmosphere. They believe that the consequences are likely to be calamitous unless the industrialized world commits itself, as it did in the Kyoto accord of 1997, to binding reductions in greenhouse gases. Yesterday, they also agreed to push ahead with ratification of the accord by the end of the year. Mr. Bush questions the science, insists that mandatory reductions in emissions will undermine the American economy and overstates the obstacles presented by developing nations like China.

The two sides agreed to keep talking. But if this pledge is to amount to anything, everyone will need to work harder, including the Europeans. Mr. Bush has taken most of the criticism in the global warming debate, and rightly so. But Europe’s behavior has not been spotless. Europe is able to hold the moral high ground in part because of several fortunate (and rarely acknowledged) events that make its task of meeting the treaty’s mandates much easier than America’s. For example, post-reunification Germany achieved huge reductions in carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, simply by closing inefficient industries in the former East Germany. Similarly, Britain achieved significant cuts when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher essentially shut down the coal mines and greatly increased the use of cleaner natural gas.

Meanwhile, Europe has been reluctant to embrace various mechanisms that might ease the economic burden on the United States. At the last ministerial meeting in the Hague, Europe resisted when the United States asked that countries be allowed to win credit for carbon ”sinks,” including reforestation projects, which draw carbon dioxide out of the air through photosynthesis. And until quite recently, Europe has not been enthusiastic about emissions trading, a market mechanism favored by Americans that has been shown to greatly reduce the costs of emissions control.

Still, there is little doubt that when it comes to taking real steps to reduce carbon emissions at the source — from cars, power plants and factories — European governments, especially Britain and Germany, far outshine the United States. They have negotiated agreements with industry, imposed so-called eco-taxes and made serious investments in energy efficiency. In the United States, by contrast, nearly all the progress has been made by private companies. The automobile industry, for example, is pouring significant research money into more fuel-efficient hybrid engines (while continuing to profit from their gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s). And a growing number of big multinational corporations, encouraged by advocacy groups like the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, have agreed to make major investments in reducing carbon emissions.

But these are isolated efforts. Overall carbon emissions in the United States continue to rise, and Mr. Bush’s policies are likely to make matters worse. Despite his promise to search for ”cutting edge” solutions, his budget for 2002 actually cuts several important energy efficiency programs, while his new energy strategy relies heavily on finding more of the very fossil fuels that contribute to warming. Equally important, he has shown little appetite for the leadership role the United States must take if this problem is ever going to be solved.

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