Global Change for the Better

A Dispatch from Copenhagen

If you listen to Fox News and the Heritage Foundation, you might be forgiven for thinking that the polyglot conference going on this week in Denmark is a conspiracy of commie sympathizers and faceless bureaucrats hell bent on taking down the global economy—or at least the part of it that’s located in the continental USA. Well, I’m sorry to report that the view from street level is a little bit different.

Here are just a few of the conversations that I had the privilege of witnessing today in some of the quieter corners of the cavernous Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, where COP 15—the United Nations climate change summit—is unfolding in real time. These economic prognostications are not my own, but they came from some of the most reliable people on the planet for navigating a path to a low-carbon economy.

A senior executive from the global automobile manufacturer BMW opined about the need to include automobile emissions when regulating carbon emission. He wanted these benchmarks so his company could have a clear shot at navigating the path from oil dependence to a future of cruising in electric cars. Incidentally, the Europeans conceded on this point that his American cousins had gotten it right by proposing to fold transportation fuels into an economy-wide emissions cap. He also saw fuel economy standards—and bold steps taken by California and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to count the carbon coming out of tail pipes equally with power plants—as being useful tools for keeping the beleaguered auto industry on a path of innovation.

A senior executive from northern Europe’s largest utility, Vattenfall AB, flippantly mentioned on the other side of the room that his firm was working from a business plan that had them producing 100-percent zero carbon energy by 2050. Was he worried he wouldn’t be able to keep the lights on for the 4.7 million retail customers he supplies in Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom? Not a chance. The combination of an aggressive push on renewable energy—particularly wind—and a long-term play on advanced carbon capture for coal plants has helped him sleep well at night. He did conceded that European utilities were nervous at first about regulating carbon emissions. But in the end he shrugged, saying, you get used to it and you get on with business—only with more confidence in your product.

At a later point in the day, a member of the leadership team from American Electric Power—the largest utility company in the United States—mentioned almost as a badge of honor that his Ohio-based power provider—with fully 40,000 Mega Watts of mostly coal-based electric power under management—supported the Waxman-Markey comprehensive climate and energy bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. This was an aside, however, in a roundtable discussion focused chiefly on how the United States could take a page from the energy sector in other nations and pull ahead in the global race for renewable energy. This race has produced 30 percent to 50 percent growth rates in the global solar market, and over 28 percent growth for heavy manufacturing in the global wind industry, as noted by the CEOs of some of these very same global competitors. Not bad for an economic downturn!

So it is with some trepidation that I must disappoint those naysayers who assert that American ingenuity isn’t quite up to the challenge of beating back global warming with a mix of strategic investment and old-fashioned roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work American optimism. Copenhagen is turning out to be the temporary capital of market- correcting capitalists, dynamic new economy entrepreneurs, and innovation-seeking industrialists. And so far there’s not a commie in sight. But then again, there’s always tomorrow—by then who knows how big the renewable energy industry will have gotten?