Having been subjected to the rigmarole of watching former US vice president Al Gore pontificating on the future of the planet in the film An Inconvenient Truth [1] and reading the gloomy projections for carbon emissions in Scientific American, I had an alternative view when reviewing the current electrified situation of Muslims against Catholics that arose from Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks.

My view is that terrorism could actually play a large part in reducing the world’s carbon emissions, and that alone should make Osama bin Laden and his ilk the new poster-boys of the ecological (green) movement.

Facts and friction

SciAm [2] reports that the 1 billion people living across North America, Europe (including Russia), Japan, Australia and New Zealand together contribute some 62% of carbon emissions. India, China and peripheral countries contribute a grand total of 25%, despite accounting for well over half the world’s population.

The article goes on to extrapolate from today’s growth trajectories to an awful future where the contributions of India and China rise sharply from today’s levels while the proportion (not the nominal amount) of emissions from the first group reduces by 2056. In the interest of space, I will desist from repeating the statistics any further.

The major implication of the grand standing by US Democrats and the scientific community would be that a regime change in the White House in 2008 could well produce accelerated plans for cutting carbon emissions, with the US leading the way.

US government involvement would likely be through the favored regime of taxes on emissions, echoing European suggestions. The price is likely to be a minimum of US$100 per ton of carbon, which works out to about $12 per barrel of oil (or 25 cents a gallon – 6.6 cents a liter – of gasoline) and $60 per ton of coal (or 2 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity derived from coal-fired plants). This may appear small from a purely Western perspective, but it is certainly no laughing matter for the likes of India and China that depend increasingly on fossil fuels to drive their growth.

The secondary effects of these policies would be manifold, by definition. A number of positive results could emerge, such as improved technology in sustainable power sources such as solar cells and fuel cells, with applications focused almost entirely around power generation and transportation. This would imply adopting specific technologies such as solar-cell arrays for power generation, and fuel cells for transport to provide the optimal mix of mobility and environmental friendliness.

There are other, secondary effects, though, that are less salutary. The West (with Japan) will not make concessions without demanding some compromises from China and India. In effect, this translates to protectionism that just happens to come about at an opportune time for US and European manufacturers. [3] The system as envisaged above would involve a trading mechanism for carbon credits, with a view to charging incremental offenders on an escalating scale. Demographically, this suits the West with its stable or declining population, but certainly does nothing for the likes of China and India.

Additionally, carbon-emission limits must consider the average emissions per person, which are substantially lower than those in the West, but are unlikely to do so because affording Chinese and Indians the same emissions per person would in essence derail the whole project, if you did the math.

Under this scenario, China and other exporting economies would need to buy carbon credits to gain export growth. Given current global overcapacity in most industries, the obvious implication would be a transfer of profits from developing Asia to the United States and Europe, which is presumably recycled into energy-saving technologies. “Presumably”, because the current track record of technologies produced by government assistance in the US and Europe is a null list. For example, the US Freedom Car project, which absorbs some $150 million to $200 million every year, has failed to produce any discernible improvements in US production engine technology for the past eight years.

A convenient falsehood

As I noted in previous articles, the US has lost its manufacturing edge and finds itself unable to produce much of anything that the rest of the world wants to buy. Rather than quietly giving up the ghost, the United States is likely to fight for its right to maintain the status quo. This inevitably entails keeping the country’s oil dependency near current levels, and continuing with wasteful ways such as consumers changing their cars every three years.

The scenario described above could produce pernicious results. For example, a future US government or private company could logically combine the carbon credits earned on exporting gas-guzzlers with falling second-hand prices of cars. They could then export, say, a million US cars every year to the likes of China and South Korea (about a quarter of current annual sales in these countries), which would themselves “need” the additional bodies, having run out of their own carbon credits allowing production beforehand.

This sale of second-hand cars would allow US car makers to produce even more cars, while increasing the pricing and profitability pressures on Asian exporters. At about $5,000 per vehicle, the plan would only cost $5 billion, which is quite small by the standards of the US Congress. It also gives a new twist to US complaints about “dumping”, while costing a lot less than alternative emissions-reduction technologies.

I could provide a number of other examples where carbon credits would produce the opposite of intended results, but the central premise that limiting carbon emissions would end up hurting Asian economies stands under each one. The basic outcome of such moves would be severely to limit growth in China and India, and to perpetuate the poverty in these countries for another 50 years.

Off the charts

In the spirit of solving the world’s carbon-emissions problem using fresh thinking, we could then consider truly different alternatives. The first facet would automatically involve the “why” rather than the “how” of modern emissions.

In addition to explaining that members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development contribute five times the pollution per capita, the SciAm article referenced above calculates the mix of carbon emissions at 66% for transport, of which land transport for people stands at 55% (or 36% of the gross figure). The development of Western society has contributed to this startling figure, which alone covers the total emissions of China and India.

In particular, a large part of this land transport involves the movement of people from suburban living areas to concentrated urban spaces. The “why” behind this statistic is that organizations have historically clustered their resources in closed spaces to allow for better management and personnel utilization. This dynamic depends on the ability of organizations to attract talented people to their premises, and therein hangs a tale.

Terrorism, by targeting the self-same urban centers, can produce a visible difference to the scenarios envisaged by the SciAm writers. More atrocities on the lines of New York, Madrid or London would likely induce a gradual shift away from concentrated urban centers such as Manhattan to satellite locations that have affordable residential accommodation in close proximity. In turn, this would allow many mass-transit systems to reduce their operations while also reducing the annual distance traveled by Americans and Europeans by 20-40%. Additionally, currently available technologies such as telecommuting would likely accelerate in this scenario, producing even more energy savings.

The secondary impact of religiously motivated terrorism would be to reduce the growth potential of Islamic countries. In the SciAm survey, the Middle East made barely a ripple in the calculations, as in essence the total industrial output of many Arab countries stands at negligible levels. Other than oil, a declining West would find few things to buy from such countries should terrorism escalate in coming years.

The scenario would likely make for glad reading among environmentalists, who have desperately searched for alternatives that could reduce global emissions drastically. This is why I stated at the beginning of the article that eco-warriors could well find common cause with Islamic terrorists. For bin Laden and his ilk, this presents an opportunity for an image makeover. Just as George W. Bush claims to be waging a war for the future of Western civilization, bin Laden could claim to be fighting for the future of the world itself.

Conclusion

I wrote in a previous article, [4] “I predict that future generations of Indians and Chinese will literally worship [George W Bush and bin Laden] for having pushed the West into a disastrous conflict with Islam.” By adopting a gradualist policy on carbon emissions, rejecting the Kyoto Protocol for example, Bush has intensified America’s strategic struggle for oil. For his part, bin Laden sees the oil dependency of the West on Islamic countries as a lever with which to derail those economies.

As I wrote in the same article, neither India nor China will adopt an activist stance in this battle, even if their strategic interests call for the battle to proceed. The Buddhist underpinnings of Chinese and Indian societies prevent the possibility of their governments encouraging terrorist tactics, or indeed even celebrating the trend. It could well prove fortuitous that bin Laden and his ilk aren’t standing around awaiting their approval.

Notes
[1] An Inconvenient Truth, Paramount Classics and Participant Productions, 2006.
[2] “Energy’s Future: Beyond Carbon”, Scientific American, September 2006.
[3] See Garfield with guns , Asia Times Online, September 2, 2006.
[4] See China and India in World War III, Asia Times Online, July 26, 2006.

https://web.archive.org/web/20100105153406/http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/HI30Aa02.html