Existing policies aimed at arresting the pace of global warming aren’t working. China, the world’s largest emitter, has reiterated its refusal to reduce carbon emissions or curtail financing of new coal-fired generating stations at home and abroad. Japan and Australia have told the International Energy Agency that they have no intention of taking the steps the IEA deems necessary to reach the goal of zero net emissions by 2050.
Add to these Russia, Saudi Arabia, and India, and it becomes clear there will be no voluntary international consensus to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — or ever. The game that has been played since delegates of some 200 nations inked the 2015 Paris Agreement is over. Game, set, and match to the emitting team. Paris has fallen.
The recent IEA report might have been the final consensus-killer. It is simply unrealistic to expect the world’s politicians to rally support for net-zero emissions by 2050 by telling them there can be no more oil and gas furnaces for sale by 2025, half of air travel will have to cease unless emissions-free fuels are developed, car trips must be replaced with walking and cycling, no permits will be issued to develop new oil and gas fields, and no coal plant will be constructed unless fitted with currently unavailable emission-catching equipment.
So what is to be done? First, abandon all hope in existing policies. Some might provide peripheral benefits, but alone they cannot reverse warming. Second, redirect research efforts from finding ways to get rid of fossil fuels to finding ways to live with them. Nations dependent on coal, natural gas, and oil are not prepared to abandon them, meaning that carbon capture, still expensive and not easily scalable, will be key to arresting warming. Rather than spend billions subsidizing electric vehicle charging stations, which may or may not emerge as the winner in the private-sector competition, concentrate on carbon capture.
Yes, other technologies might emerge, including some that permit the construction of more than the 50 or so nuclear plants now being built. After all, it is not possible to predict breakthroughs. But we can help make them possible — not with subsidies, but by forcing the existing technologies with which they compete for capital and customers to reflect in their prices the costs they are inflicting on society.
Here is the good news: We don’t need the voluntary cooperation of other nations. Sure, no friendly hand should be slapped away. But the key is to put accurate prices on all the things consumers want — all the stuff that nations produce to sustain their economic growth.
Start with a carbon border tax. Want to sell your stuff in the great American market? Fine. But pay a border tax that reflects the cost imposed on us and the planet by the emissions created when you produced those products. In short, join with the European Union and give Chinese President Xi Jinping a choice: Reduce the emissions embedded in your exports, or face taxes that will raise their prices and reduce their competitiveness in our markets.
Such a tax will drive up the value of what are called offsets — things that offset the emissions by swallowing them up, such as trees that eat carbon, equipment that replaces emission-producing cooking for developing countries, and investment that reduces the need for heating and cooling in new buildings. These all create credits that emitters can buy to keep the effects of their activity net-neutral. They can claim credit for reducing emissions elsewhere equal to those they create in the field.
This brings us to the Biden administration. Continue the showy meetings if that suits, but it is often sound and fury signifying very little. On the other hand, use your biggest weapon — access to the United States market — to make large emitters reduce warming, and you might actually accomplish something. Republicans, even those skeptical about warming, should embrace this opportunity to hold Xi’s feet to the fire.