How the US could be left behind

Observations on global warming David Nicholson-Lord

It is accepted wisdom to view the re-election of George W Bush as a black day for the environment - and so it was, if ratification of the Kyoto agreement on climate change or the reining in of American oil-guzzling lifestyles are your criteria. Dubbya can now get on with chopping down trees (the "Healthy Forests" initiative), lowering air pollu-tion standards (the "Clear Skies" initiative) and opening up wilderness areas to his oil company chums. But there's a wider story that, for Europeans at least, may carry some comfort.

Imagine that in the 1880s, as Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz were preparing to loose the internal combustion engine on the world, Bismarck in return for various favours from his allies in the coach-and-pairs industry had instituted a programme for the breeding of superior horses and turned over large parts of the Ruhr to grazing pasture. The result - a horse-drawn Germany - might well have been a better place. But its economy, and therefore its political influence, would have suffered a grievous blow.

Something of the sort may be happening now in the US. If you accept the argu-ment that energy shapes the course of civilisations - that how a state, or a society, moves and powers itself is a crucial determinant of its success - then the US is moving decisively backwards. Indeed, Americans' addiction to fossil fuel, and the incapacity of their political system to remedy this, may fatally undermine the neo-con aspiration to make the 21st century American property.

The energy policies of Bush's second term are likely to involve more drilling for oil, a re-examination of nuclear power and some high-profile dalliance with the (environmentally dubious) hydrogen option. What is not on the agenda is any serious attempt at energy conservation - fuel economy for cars or homes, for example - or nationwide controls of green- house gas emissions. Contrast this with Europe, where an EU-wide system of emissions trading - in which companies buy and sell quotas for greenhouse gas emissions - will become compulsory in January. Russia, which has just signed up to Kyoto, is keen to join this system.

National, or better still international, regulation creates the "level playing field" that even the most anti-bureaucratic of companies recognise they need for long-term investment decisions. And this may explain why the US is losing the race for renewables. The wind industry, for example, was born in California in the 1980s. Now Europe leads the field: nine of the world's ten leading wind turbine manufacturers are in Denmark, Germany and Spain, and capacity in these countries is projected to increase nearly sevenfold by 2020. It's a similar story with cars, where German and Japanese models top the list of eco-automobiles - and Ford's deficiency in green research and development recently forced it to buy hybrid engine technology from Toyota. This was cited earlier this year by Al Gore, former vice-president, as evidence that the US was at a turning point and needed to be "part of the solution rather than part of the problem".

If the 21st century does pit Europe's "social" model of society against the American "winner takes all" version, Europe's endorsement of new energy technologies may give it, literally and metaphorically, a following wind.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Police state