Setting Priorities on Carbon Reduction

Tom Friedman presents some numbers to conjure with:

Imagine if you took all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the world and added up their exhaust every year. The amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2, all those cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships collectively emit into the atmosphere is actually less than the carbon emissions every year that result from the chopping down and clearing of tropical forests in places like Brazil, Indonesia and the Congo. We are now losing a tropical forest the size of New York State every year, and the carbon that releases into the atmosphere now accounts for roughly 17 percent of all global emissions contributing to climate change.

Of course we should reduce the emissions of vehicles. My preference for doing that would be to phase out the subsidies we’re providing for them including ethanol subsidies (especially ethanol subsidies), highway subsidies, and the home mortgage interest deduction which subsidizes sprawl which, in turn, incentivizes highway construction. We should also eliminate the direct subsidies we’re paying to automobile manufacturers. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the Obama Administration, rhetorically in favor of reducing emissions, has done more to subsidize automobiles than any administration since the Eisehower Administration and the National Highway Defense Act. Not to mention subsidizing housing construction which provides an indirect subsidy to auto manufacturing.

It’s unclear to me if Mr. Friedman’s implied prescription of “a new model of economic development” makes any sense. My intuition is that it’s just a stalking horse for handouts from developed countries to developing countries which might be as likely to cause clearing of the rainforests as inhibit it.

My question would be what are the factors that encourage the clearing of rainforests? In Indonesia, the third largest polluter after the United States and China, demand for lumber and bio-fuels have incentivized conversion of forest land to the production of palm oil. In Brazil, demand for beef, particularly from Arab countries (Brazil’s largest beef customers), and increased ethanol production (for fuel) have incentivized the conversion of forest land to sugar cane cultivation and to pasturage. In both countries population pressures, while genuine causes of deforestation (and the only cause the Mr. Friedman considers in his column), are subordinate to the large scale conversion of forest land to production by various private interests.

There are connecting threads between the issue in Indonesia and Brazil: demand for oil, the World Bank has encouraged the development model they’re using in both places, and both have land use policies which make it easy to acquire forest and convert it to other uses. In Brazil, for example, all you needed to do to claim land in the rainforest was to clear it and put a few cattle on it and it was yours. Logging permits have been similarly easy to come by in Indonesia.

Frankly, I’m skeptical of the enforcement mechanisms on the handout plans proposed. What’s to keep people from taking the cash and clearing forest? Local inspectors can always be paid off and the territory involved is vast—international inspectors will be few and far between.

I think we’d get more bang for the buck by reducing our own subsidies, increasing our use of nuclear power generation, and negotiating better agricultural and trade policies with our trading partners.

3 comments… add one

Leave a Comment