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August 1, 2015

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Expert: International solution to climate change hinges on U.S. leadership

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Sam Morris

The coal-fired Reid Gardner Generating Station near Moapa is shown April 5, 2007. The spots near the smokestacks are “ghost” reflections of the lights on the plant, which can occur in digital cameras while shooting a point light source.

Despite repeated attempts over the past decades to create a plan to curb carbon emissions on a global scale, international efforts to stymie the growing threat of climate change have largely fallen short, Brookings Institution Fellow Joshua Meltzer said during a lecture at UNLV Tuesday night.

Treaties like the Kyoto Protocol and international summits like the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, have largely failed to address the problem of global warming, Meltzer said, while a carbon cap and trade system in the European Union has had mixed success. A 2009 bill to implement a carbon cap and trade system in the United States failed to pass, while the issue of climate change was largely ignored during the recent presidential election.

“It is torturously slow; it is invariably most of the time disappointing,” Meltzer said of international climate change negotiations.

During his lecture at the Greenspun Hall auditorium on UNLV’s campus, Meltzer, a global economy and development fellow, discussed the obstacles to finding an international solution to climate change and some of the unexpected consequences a piecemeal approach to reducing carbon emissions can have on trade.

To address climate change on a global level, Meltzer said the United States needs to take a leadership role in international policy development and demonstrate it is committed to substantially reducing carbon emissions.

“We will unfortunately not get anywhere until the U.S. gets serious about climate change,” Meltzer said. “U.S. leadership on all range of international issues is always key. Once the United States gets that interest and commits to action … I think we will see in fairly quick succession a whole lot of countries following.”

Meltzer said if countries don’t coordinate their actions and develop a comprehensive plan, a fragmented approach to regulating carbon emissions could have negative effects on economic competitiveness and trade.

Meltzer used the recently implemented European Union Aviation Directive, which requires airline companies to participate in the union’s carbon cap and trade system, as an example of the potential unforeseen consequences of climate change policy.

The directive requires the aviation industry, which contributes about 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, to purchase carbon permits to cover emissions by planes traveling into or out of a member nation airport, even if the airline is based in a different country.

Meltzer said the cap and trade system could incentivize airlines to route their planes to avoid European Union airports as much as possible, an inefficiency that could lead to more carbon emissions under the previous system.

“If you put a price on carbon in advance of other countries … essentially you’re putting a cost on your industry which other industries in other countries are not facing,” he said.

Meltzer was the fourth of five speakers in the Brookings Mountain West’s fall lecture series, which has also featured discussions on natural gas and clean energy. The last lecture on Nov. 27 will feature Brookings Senior Fellow Ross Hammond discussing social dynamics and public policy.

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