The presidential election of 2008 marks an important turning point in the history of American climate policy. We arent debating whether to limit emissions of greenhouse gases that accelerate global warming; both major candidates agree we need to do so. The current debate is about how best to rein in these emissions.
Sen. Obama offers bolder long-term goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but Sen. McCain also calls for ambitious targets with specific milestones along the way. If both have solid goals for 2050, how should we distinguish between their positions?
To answer that question, we need to address the esoteric issue of offsets. Most plans to cap missions allow the purchase of offsetting credits when emissions continue to rise. This approach might allow a company to exceed the caps, if they, for instance, helped finance more efficient electricity generation in China or save the Amazon forests in Brazil. Offsets have wide support because they presumably encourage the most global progress at the least cost.
Sen. McCain is the stronger of the candidates in his support of offsets. His plan allows participants to purchase such credits to cover 100 percent of their required reductions. His aim is to reduce the cost of the program.
But not enough attention has been paid to problems created by extensive use of offsets. When theyve been employed under the umbrella of the Kyoto Treaty (which only the U.S. among the developed nations has not signed), theyve not always proved effective at delivering reductions at the lowest costs. Theres also a problem of paying people for things they would've done anyway.
A bigger problem is the impact of offsets on technology. With offsets, currently available advanced technology is often used to display less efficient, cheaper technology. What we need, however, is the creation of new technologies and that requires vigorous efforts to reduce admissions in the scientifically advanced nations.
The biggest problem is the message sent when the U.S. pays people in other countries to reduce their emissions but avoids doing so within its own borders. The U.S. agreed under the 1992 Rio treaty to limit emissions to 1990 levels, but our emissions have since risen 20 percent. The world is justifiably skeptical of our intentions.
We need to show the world we intend to reduce our own emissions and do so while maintaining economic growth. Offsets are a distraction. The United States needs to start reducing its own emissions right away, if the global effort is going to have any chance of success.
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