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What's In It For U.S. To Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The chimneys of the Kolaghat Thermal Power Station loom above a field flooded for rice farming near Mecheda, West Bengal, India, in July 2011.
Dibyangshu Sarkar
AFP/Getty Images
The chimneys of the Kolaghat Thermal Power Station loom above a field flooded for rice farming near Mecheda, West Bengal, India, in July 2011.

The United Nations negotiations in Warsaw over a climate treaty are moving at glacial speed — and that's in part because there's a fundamental problem.

In the coming decades, carbon dioxide emissions from China, India and other rapidly developing countries are expected to grow quickly. Residents there aspire to lifestyles Americans and Europeans enjoy today, and those nations aren't willing to slash emissions, because doing so could slow their economic growth.

With carbon dioxide on the rise from sources outside the United States, some people are asking why the U.S. should bear the expense involved in slashing its own emissions.

We put that question to some of the world's leading climate strategists — several academics who live and work in California, home to the nation's most ambitious policy for dealing with climate change.

Take, for example, Catherine Wolfram, an economics professor and co-director of the Haas Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. She says it's fair to ask why the U.S. should shift from cheap fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources that are more expensive.

"If you look at the numbers," Wolfram says, "they suggest a whole year of California reductions [are] wiped away in one week of Chinese growth."

Looked at that way, it seems futile to try. But Wolfram says there is a rationale for the United States to show some leadership.

"I don't think the political message is what India and China need to hear," she says. "I think they just need to see — and we haven't shown it yet, but the hope is that we will show it eventually — that we can produce low-carbon energy cheaply."

Nobody disputes that's a huge challenge, but if you ask Daniel Kammen, it's a goal within reach. He's a professor of energy and nuclear engineering at the Energy and Resources Group at Cal, and has an office just down the hill from Wolfram's.

"China already has a carbon price; the U.S. does not," Kammen points out, arguing that the world's largest emitter isn't ignoring climate change. That price is paid, one way or another, by companies that emit carbon dioxide.

It's a relatively small amount of money — not nearly enough to stop the rapid increase in emissions from China. But China has other motivations to reduce emissions — starting with its toxic air.

"China is already paying a very high price for its fuel diet, and sees every motivation to ramp that amount of pollution down," Kammen says. "That's why China has become the world's leader in production of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries for electric vehicles."

Certainly you do it for the good of the world. But you also do it for risk management.

Those technologies are still dwarfed by fossil fuels, but China is at least positioned for a transition, Kammen says.

Across San Francisco Bay, Stanford University's Sally Benson also sees a rationale for cleaning up U.S. emissions, even as China and other countries are making the problem worse.

"Certainly you do it for the good of the world, but you also do it for risk management," says Benson, who directs the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford. Benson is referring to both economic and physical risk.

"I think there will come a day," she says, "when it will become so clear that we need to do this right away, that the countries that haven't prepared themselves really put themselves at much greater economic risk."

Benson says the cost of switching to low-carbon energy will probably mean spending twice as much as the U.S. does today on energy investments — a noticeable expenditure, she admits, even though the investment would be spread over several decades. The cost to the U.S. economy would have been a lot less, Benson notes, if we'd started this transition back during the energy crisis of the 1970s.

Finally, we posed the question to Chris Field, an environmental biologist who directs the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology, also on the Stanford campus.

Field argues that the United States can find ways to act that aren't simply unilateral. If the U.S. gets the structure right, its strategy could actually shape what happens in the rest of the world, he says.

For example, the price of a product should reflect its environmental cost, Field says. That way, any buyer would help pay for the small incremental damage caused by the carbon dioxide that ended up in the atmosphere when the product was made.

The U.S. could impose this price unilaterally on domestic products. If China doesn't also add that to the price of, say, an iPhone made in China, the U.S. could add the carbon fee with a tax at the border — and that money would go into the U.S. Treasury.

But Field also makes a more philosophical argument, one based on doing the right thing.

"Personally," he says, "I believe that we are close to an era where if a country wants to be regarded as a leading country on the international scene, [its leaders] will recognize that this is one of the things you need to do."

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Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.