09 February 2006

Climate Change: Bhagwati's Climate Bargain

One title that did not make my book list from 2005 is Jagdish Bhagwati's In Defense of Globalization. It should have, but I only got to it this year. Bhagwati's defense is at times a wee bit dismissive of some real concerns about the impacts of globalization, but the book as a whole is a superb layman's guide to this critical issue of our time. His arguments are, for the most part, sound and it is a book that should be read by all who are concerned about globalization's effects -- whether you believe in its promise or suspect its faults.

Professor Bhagwati's take on the environmental impacts of globalization is a little thin -- for a more comprehensive view of both sides of the issue one need turn to World's Apart: Globalization and the Environment -- but he is spot on when he tosses out an idea at the end of his "Environment in Peril?" chapter.

Bhagwati, a renowned economist at Columbia, suggests an idea that I mean to put forth for some dialogue. Let me take the liberty of turning at length to the author's own words:

The United States currently accepts the principle of the Superfund, where companies must clean up past damage to the environment, even -- and oddly, in my view -- when the pollution was not scientifically considered harmful. So the United States can be asked simply to accept internationally what it accepts at home: the damage it did in the past must be paid for, with payments (which should be several hundred billions, for sure) going into an international Superfund.

This fund could be used to finance the use of carbon-free technology in the developing countries and financing to research into new inventions including the carbon-trapping technology that is being developed. Here the fact that the United States leads in such research and therefore its industry can be expected to profit from this arrangement should prove to be a major motivating factor.

At the same time, as far as current emissions are concerned, each country could be charged for its net emissions of carbon minus its absorption of carbon. It would mean buying permits for all emissions -- again, a principle that Americans love because it is market-based. This would also automatically mean that the rich countries would likely pay the largest amounts to be able to emit annually and therefore would have the greater incentive to cut emissions.

Thus, by building the treaty around two principles, the Superfund for stocks/past and permits for flows/present, Kyoto could be redesigned and repackaged in a way that both appeals to current American principles of public policy and generates results for the distribution of cost burdens between the rich and poor countries not greatly dissimilar to what the present Kyoto treaty does.

The point behind Bhagwati's notion is "to indicate that efficient design and distributional fairness are important." He's not calling for a wholesale renegotiation of Kyoto, but essentially a new approach that may be more palatable to the US and other developed countries.

An elegant idea or bunk? I'm hoping my readers will enter into a dialogue on this subject. I have thus far uncovered very little discussion of the matter among my colleagues or fellow thinkers in the blogosphere. I'll keep looking, but hope you will comment herein.

Categories: , , ,

1 comment:

Simmons B. Buntin said...

Seems elegant in its simplicity, which is nearly always a good thing. But corporations and the current administration don't like Superfund liability at home---even if it is American law---so it'll be a tough sell internationally, especially. That said, it's more than time to own up.