No Easy Fix For Kyoto Mandates

by By F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.
Copyright 1998 Investor's Business Daily, Inc.
Reprinted with permission of
Investor's Business Daily (January 22, 1998)

A basic rule in telemarketing is to accentuate the positive and gloss over the negative until you have the customer hooked.

That's the approach the Clinton administration is taking in selling the flawed U.N. climate pact agreed to in Kyoto, Japan, last month.

Shortly before the U.N.-sponsored summit on climatic change in Kyoto, the president outlined his strategy to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by roughly one-third over the next decade. He claimed this could be done at little or no cost to the U.S. economy with the advent of new technology.

Seizing on an October statement by Energy Secretary Federico Pena of a "dramatic breakthrough" in automotive fuel-cell technology, Clinton hammered home the notion that greenhouse technology will avert any economic pain of complying with a binding global warming treaty.

"If we do it right," the president said, "protecting the climate will yield not costs, but profits; not burdens, but benefits; not sacrifices, but a higher standard of living."

The president's rosy scenario is based on a flawed understanding of the speed and manner in which technology is developed. Research and development takes time - a lot of time. That's why federal civilian agencies such as the Energy Department back projects that are too long term and too high risk to be considered profitable by the private sector.

The Energy Department has sponsored long-term energy R&D for 20 years. According to the Congressional Research Service, the department has spent over $82 billion (in '97 dollars) on energy R&D, including $10.4 billion on fusion, $6.3 billion on conservation and $11.4 billion on solar and other renewable energy sources. Despite all that, we've yet to develop a technology that can compete economically with fossil fuels.

New technology needs a lot of lead time before it sees widespread use. It took 55 years for the automobile to hit 25% market penetration. Microwave ovens needed 30 years to get into a quarter of the nation's homes. Even the personal computer required 15 years to reach one-fourth of American consumers.

There is a long delay between R&D and the eventual marketing of technology. Today's R&D is worth pursuing, but is extremely unlikely to yield technologies that will be in wide use by the 2008-2012 Kyoto deadline.

That's why the president lingered on DOE's announcement of a fuel- cell "breakthrough." A competitively priced car powered by a fuel cell that converts gasoline to hydrogen would be a crucial achievement. If such a car can be mass produced in the next couple of years, a significant amount of carbon dioxide from cars could be eliminated.

But it turns out that the Energy Department's "breakthrough" announcement was premature. "What was evident from the display is that much more work needs to be done before (the fuel cell) is ready for automotive use," wrote Energy Daily. The trade publication went on: "Not only must the (fuel cell) be 25 times more powerful than the existing two-kilowatt model, but substantial weight reduction must be achieved."

Vehicles powered by fuel cells will become a reality at some point in the future. General Motors Corp., DaimlerBenz AG and Toyota Motor Corp. all indicate they will have a fuel-cell-powered vehicle "production ready" by 2004. But this time frame is too late to make a significant contribution to reducing U.S. greenhouse gas levels by the Kyoto deadline.

As Vice President Al Gore wrote in "Earth in the Balance": "It is important to remember (when addressing environmental problems) that there is a great danger in seeing technology alone as the answer . . . ."

Absent an affordable and available technological fix, the surest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to raise the cost of fossil fuels. Yale economist William Nordhaus says cutting emissions in the U.S. back to 1990 levels by 2010 would mean doubling the price of energy. That's more than the energy price hikes during the Carter years that triggered double-digit inflation and unemployment.

Of course unemployment and inflation don't sell. So the White House is selling prosperity built on technology we have yet to perfect. The Kyoto U.N. climate pact is one bill of goods the American people shouldn't buy.

F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., chairman of the House Committee on Science, led a congressional delegation to observe the U.N. climate negotiations in Kyoto, Japan.

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