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David Burwell

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Our Global Choice: Asserting U.S. Leadership on Climate and Energy

Posted: 12/08/11 05:10 PM ET

In an old Jack Benny skit a thief puts a gun to Benny's head and shouts, "your money or your life!" Benny, rather than turning over his wallet (he nurtured a reputation as a notorious skinflint) crosses his arms, furrows his brow, taps his lips, and stares into space. After a long pause he replies, "Wait a minute, I'm thinking."

In the real world, all who share this planet are not only channeling Jack Benny, we are also collectively the thief -- and it is no joke. We have put a gun to our head and it has a name: fossil fuels.

We have just five years to make a wholesale shift in capital energy investments from the production and use of carbon-intensive fuels to new, low-carbon energy. If we fail, the International Energy Agency warns that carbon levels will be "locked in," raising average global temperatures by 3.5 degrees centigrade within this century. If we wait until 2035 to restore a global energy-carbon balance, we will bring a 6 degree Celsius temperature rise. Exceeding a 2 degree Celsius rise threatens massive ecological and economic damage. 6 degrees approaches planetary suicide.

Yet, as world leaders convene in Durban, South Africa this month seeking agreement on how to hold global temperatures below the 2 degree Celsius level by 2050, progress continues to elude us. Existing economic challenges and leadership transitions in the major carbon-emitting economies, coupled with general finger pointing about who goes first, are blocking meaningful progress. Instead of acting, we will keep on "thinking."

We can't afford to wait for collective buy-in. We must act -- fast. The place to start is with the major emitting nations -- China, the United States, Russia, Europe, and India. Each country must choose its own promising emission reduction path and go for it -- flat out. This is an opportunity to both demonstrate global leadership and gain competitive advantage in a new global energy economy. In the United States, we have a clear and present opportunity to decarbonize a key sector -- transportation.

There are five good reasons the United States should exhibit climate leadership on transportation.

First, the United States is an oil sponge. America's share of global oil consumption is ten times its share of global oil reserves. As global oil demand continues to rise, from 87 million barrels per day to nearly 100 million barrels a day in 2035, fierce competition between nations will drive up oil costs. If, instead of weaning ourselves off oil, the United States turns full bore to Canadian oil sands, domestic oil shale, and other unconventional North American oils to feed our addiction, the costs to our economy, communities, and ecology will be unprecedented. The less oil we use, the better for all of us.

Second, we are about to enact a new federal transportation bill that lacks clear national goals and ignores the current transportation system's entrenched dependence on oil. Fully 94 percent of our transportation system runs on oil. To ease the transition away from oil, transportation carbon should be priced, whether it is upstream at the producers or downstream at the pump. Revenue from carbon pricing should be directed toward building a more efficient system promoting both economic competitiveness and domestic health and welfare. Carbon pricing plus strategic investment yield net benefits, not costs.

Third, we are a global technology leader on fuels and vehicles. We have identified several non-food plants that can be processed into high-performance jet fuels, and our airlines have initiated commercial flights using these biofuels. And, thanks to the new product line of clean, low-carbon cars now coming off Detroit assembly lines, car sales actually rose during the recent oil price spike, from 9 million in 2009 to 13 million in the last year. America can, and should, lead the world in vehicle and fuel innovation.

Fourth, we can give ourselves another leg up if we follow through on our commitment to passenger and commercial fleet fuel efficiency standards -- cars to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 and a 20 percent improvement in heavy truck efficiency by 2018. By aligning our domestic markets with world demand for energy efficient transportation we have a unique opportunity to increase our global market share while helping the world wean itself off oil.

Fifth, we must decarbonize urban transportation systems. City by city, a shift is underway. Metropolitan regions, home to 65 percent of Americans, are increasing in population and productivity. Moreover, younger residents have the lowest driver license registration in years, shifting travel away from personal autos. New ways of integrating land use and transportation planning, enhanced by new technology applications, are gearing up to transform the very fabric of urban mobility.

Taken together, the United States can significantly accelerate the decline in its demand for oil, with associated cuts in climate-forcing emissions.

While we wish our leaders success at Durban, an international climate framework is unlikely. Continued global climate inaction begs individual action. Decarbonizing transportation in the United States will bolster market leadership, reduce oil dependence, rebuild infrastructure, and support a competitive economy. In the process, we can take the gun from our head and avoid planetary suicide. Think first -- then act. No joke.