Despite G8 Pledge, Divergent Climate Change Approach Remains

Photo: Office of the President of the European Council

Leaders of the world’s most developed countries, the Group of Eight, gathered on May 18th in the state of Maryland to discuss pursuing sustainable energy and low carbon policies. They reached an agreement to support the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a US-led coalition that aims to reduce short-lived pollutants, which includes black carbon, hydrofluorocarbons, and methane. In a joint-statement about the meeting, leaders have declared their intention to meet their energy needs “from a wide variety of sources ranging from traditional fuels to renewables to other clean technologies,” pledging to do so “in an environmentally safe, sustainable, secure, and affordable manner.”

Despite the pledge to renew environmental commitments, members also agreed to support exploring petroleum, deep water drilling, and hydraulic fracturing, all of which pose unique environmental problems themselves. The meeting was dominated by discussions of the unfolding crisis in Europe, the continuing violence in Syria, and Iran’s nuclear program. While climate change has not always been a high priority for the nations involved in such discussions, certain countries’ actions are beginning to reflect another perspective. Sweden and South Korea, for example, have adopted strategies to diminish greenhouse gas emissions. The US, on the other hand, has not adopted long-term national strategies that would fight climate change to the same degree as Sweden and South Korea. Inconsistent international approaches to environmental management suggest that a divergence in political cultures is playing a part.

Divergent interests affecting environmental policies?

Approaches to addressing climate change by reducing emissions vary. However, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change makes clear that climate change either impacts – or is impacted by – global issues, including poverty, economic development, population growth, sustainable development and resource management. It is not surprising, then, that solutions come from all disciplines and fields of research and development. The carbon tax scheme has been one proposed change.


By imposing a tax on the carbon content of fuels used in countries, carbon tax schemes have provided one of the most powerful incentives for governments to reduce emissions. Demonstrated by a number of industrialized countries like Sweden, this method has specifically involved charging a fee for greenhouse gas pollution, emissions resulting mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. The fee may come in the form of a surcharge on carbon-based fuels and other industrial processes that serve as sources of such pollution. The Swedish Ministry of the Environment has estimated an overall 20 per cent decrease in emissions since its implementation of the carbon tax in 1991, effectively upholding its commitment under the Kyoto Protocol. The US, on the other hand, has yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

In addition to implementing the carbon tax, Sweden has been involved in promoting many other environmental policies since the 1980’s, both domestic and international. For example, the mid-1980s saw the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and as Emma Lindberg, climate change expert at the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation recalls, “There was a real wish to turn Sweden into a leading environmental country.” Lindberg asserts that “Swedes are proud that their country is leading on environmental issues.” She explains that environmental initiatives can indeed prove beneficial to a country’s revenue. “The mindset was ‘we need to do what’s good for the environment because it’s good for Sweden and its economy.”

While it poses the risk of an initial loss of business and investment from large polluters who may be deterred from operating in the US, a carbon tax is an appropriate solution for the country because the reduction of emissions maintains economic incentives. Polluting is rendered an unattractive option as, under this scheme, as it becomes an economic disincentive altogether. It ensures that there is a high price to pay if one chooses to pollute. Ultimately, companies and households would pollute less by choosing to invest in cleaner technologies and greener practices. In turn, this would increase the nation’s demand for greener products, which encourages domestic innovation and investment in green solutions.

This sort of transition would not happen overnight and companies will not immediately feel the financial benefits, facing instead the initial cost of switching to new technologies. The carbon tax is expected to face numerous political challenges in the U.S. at various levels. However, indications do suggest that Republicans, whose official website presents a clear opposition to “so-called cap and trade legislation,” do not altogether dismiss the carbon tax as a solution. As Mitt Romney wrote in a 2007 New York Times op-ed: “In the debate over global climate change, there is a yawning gap that needs to be bridged. The gap is not between environmentalists and industrialists, or between Democrats and Republicans. It is between policy wonks and political consultants. Among policy wonks like me, there is a broad consensus. The scientists tell us that world temperatures are rising because humans are emitting carbon into the atmosphere. Basic economics tells us that when you tax something, you normally get less of it. So if we want to reduce global emissions of carbon, we need a global carbon tax.”


Also successfully, in regions like South Korea, governments enforce a cap-and-trade system in which a limit, or cap, is put on the overall carbon pollution. While the US is familiar with this cap-and-trade scheme under its Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, it is only practiced by nine states in the Northeastern region. The cap is reduced by a little more each year until it reaches its target rate. Companies are incentivized to stay below the cap, otherwise they are required to buy unused quotas from others. Pollution quotas are market-determined and distributed by governments. In having the emission cap ensure decreased pollution, companies are given the incentive to adopt new methods that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Recent figures have revealed the international strength of the clean-energy market, particularly during the global recession, as $243 billion was invested worldwide in clean-energy technologies in 2010. This industry has become one of the fastest-growing in the world, increasing at an average annual rate of 30 per cent for the past ten years.

Difficulties ahead

According to the US Energy Information Administration, China, the United States, Japan, India, and Russia are among the top emitters of fossil fuels. Due to its high level of per capita greenhouse gas emissions though, the U.S. has had a disproportionately large impact on that list.

While President Obama has given more consideration to the issue than his predecessor, who fought relentlessly against the Kyoto Protocol, he has encountered crippling opposition to his environmental commitments, while countries like Sweden and South Korea have proactively addressed the issue.

The assertion that a key component to greater global economic prosperity involves finding long-term solutions for affordable access to energy resources is one shared by all members of the G8, as revealed by their recent joint statement. Yet, with the U.S. House of Representatives presently under Republican control and the U.S. Senate confronted by GOP filibusters, in addition to the further impediment of lobbyist action, it is unlikely that any American legislation to support the G8 agreements on the initiatives discussed at Camp David will occur immediately.

Future measures will remain unknown for some time. What is clear, however, is that there is a global commitment towards slowing climate change, and that this commitment requires a changing perception of the issue, which certain countries are now demonstrating. Lessons can be observed from the recent histories of countries like Sweden and South Korea. The fear of economic losses due to a transition as drastic as those now needed to slow climate change can be overcome if the benefits of such measures are attractive to the nation, or if the benefits outweigh the losses. As Lindberg states, Sweden was able to draw national pride from its environmental policies. Such lessons offer valuable insights for unifying a stance globally, and as tackling climate change is contingent on coordinated measures, success should not be viewed as altogether impossible.

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