TCS Daily

Carbon's Kindergarten Cop

By Kenneth Green - May 17, 2006 12:00 AM

A wise investor puts her money in investments that offer the highest returns at the lowest cost. A poor investor puts his money in investments that offer low returns at a higher cost. I don't know what you'd call an investor who puts lots of money into "investments" that offer no benefits, but "Schwarzenegger" might be a good label.

The Governor's pledge to lower greenhouse gas emissions in California to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 will bring Californians little or no environmental benefit, while costing the citizenry a substantial amount of money. The Governor has long pandered to California's environmental interest groups, but as an earlier (and wiser) Republican Governor named Reagan observed, "Facts are stubborn things." So let's look at the stubborn facts.

If it worked perfectly, the legislation now in front of the California Legislature -- largely in line with the Governor's plan -- would lower California greenhouse gas emissions by 145 million tons by the year 2020[1]. That might sound like a large reduction. But let's do some math.

Global emissions of greenhouse gases in 2020 are estimated to be about 42.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent -- yes billions, with a 'b.'  If California avoids emitting 145 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, that's about a 0.3 percent (three-tenths of one percent) reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions. Now let's figure out what benefit that provides. Despite people mislabeling greenhouse gases as "pollutants," greenhouse gases are non-toxic: the only benefit you get from reducing them is to avoid some degree of global warming in the future.  

The predicted warming by the year 2020 according to the absolute worst-case computer models of the United Nations[2] is about about 1.3 degree (Fahrenheit). If we make the assumption that California's action will knock out temperature change equal to its greenhouse gas reductions (0.3 percent) we see that California's actions will avert about four one-thousandths of a degree of warming, an amount far too little to measure, much less to offer any benefits to Californians (or anyone else, for that matter).

So much for benefits, let's talk about costs. California politicians like to talk about California as if it were a country. So, let's pretend that's true, and assume the likely cost of GHG reductions in California will be similar to what's been estimated in other high-tech, economically-powerful countries.

A 2002 study looked at the impact of greenhouse gas reductions on the economies of four European countries with goals about 20 percent weaker than what the Governor is proposing, so we'll call those least-cost estimates.[4] Germany, according to that study, would lose nearly 3 percent of its gross domestic product and up to 1.3 million jobs annually by 2020, and ever after. The Netherlands would lose about 2 percent of GDP, and up to 180,000 jobs, while the UK would also lose about 2 percent of GDP, which could cost them up to 750,000 jobs.

What could the Governor do if he was serious about the threats posed by our ever-changing climate? The best thing he could do would be to drop the ludicrous idea of instituting global weather control via greenhouse gas controls and focus on making California's infrastructure resilient in the face of any climate change from any cause. For example, he might fix the perverse incentives that led people to put houses and business down in areas sensitive to small fluctuations in water supply, or weather. He might crusade against insurance subsidies that enable people to build (and repeatedly rebuild) in flood plains, on eroding beachfronts, on the ever-sliding hills of Malibu, or other regions particularly susceptible to climate-induced damage. He might end water subsidies that let farmers grow water-intensive crops in the desert, while wasting massive quantities of fresh water. He might work to establish competitive free markets in energy, agriculture and transportation to make these vital goods lean, mean, responsive machines.

It's not easy to communicate the idea that a policy of resilience and adaptability is in the best interests of Californians. Indeed, in the changing climate of California politics, it's apparently easier to play the role of carbon's Kindergarten Cop.

Kenneth Green is a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


[1] Speaker Nunez and Assemblymember Pavley Introduce Groundbreaking Bill to Curb Global Warming, Spur Technology Investments, press release, Speaker Fabian Nunex, 46th Assembly district.

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: The Scientific Basis (2001). The high-end emission scenario for 2020 predicts 12,640 Gtons Carbon Equivalent emissions. (p. 801). Conversion to Billion Tons OF Carbon Dioxide Equivalent by author.

[3] Ibid., p. 555, 0.7 degrees Centigrade converts to 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit.Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: The Scientific Basis (2001). The high-end emission scenario for 2020 predicts 12,640 Gtons Carbon Equivalent emissions. (p. 801).

[4] ACCF, Kyoto Protocol and Beyond: Economic Impacts on EU Countries


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