Peter Timmer asks whether Asian countries can provide regional leadership on clean energy and global warming mitigation.
Last week, former American Vice President Al Gore sharply criticized the Obama administration for failing to significantly alter United States policy on climate change and energy. We asked our Sustainability Roundtable to discuss the role American leadership should play in shaping government policies on climate change throughout Asia. Additionally, what global leadership role exists for developed and developing Asian countries themselves in areas like clean energy and global warming mitigation? Is the possibility of a global deal on climate change completely dead? If so, can it be resuscitated?
Peter Timmer is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development and was Principal Advisor to the Asia Society Task Force on Food Security. Now retired from teaching, he is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Development Studies, emeritus, at Harvard University.
It is hard not to be discouraged by the realistic tone of this week's question — why is the U.S. mired in a deadly political debate over the existence of climate change, rather than what to do about it?
I certainly understand Al Gore's frustration in lashing out at the Obama administration, but I do not see any feasible way forward for the U.S. to provide leadership on clean energy and global warming mitigation. Our private sector and universities are doing good research in the field, but without policy leadership, much of that research will find a negative market over the next decade or longer.
So the question then is whether Asian countries can do things for themselves, and provide regional leadership and cooperation on these issues. In principle the answer might be yes, but rapidly growing economies need lots of resources — especially energy — and oil, coal and natural gas are the cheapest way to get them. Even China's green energy initiatives will barely slow the rate of growth of greenhouse gases, much less reduce them, over the next half century. India is lagging behind even that.
My own sense is that reducing air pollution will be the biggest incentive for cleaner energy in both China and India, not climate change.