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Steam billowing from the cooling towers of Vattenfall's Jaenschwalde brown coal power station is reflected in the water of a lake near Cottbus, eastern Germany (PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI)
Steam billowing from the cooling towers of Vattenfall's Jaenschwalde brown coal power station is reflected in the water of a lake near Cottbus, eastern Germany (PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI)

Jeff Rubin's Smaller World

Why can't we build coal plants, too? Add to ...

Don't confuse North American voter skepticism about the recent farce in Copenhagen with indifference to environmental issues.

Photo ops for local schmoes trying to make it big on a world stage don't abate a single ton of carbon going out into the atmosphere, and neither does anything else coming out of that environmental summit.

Nor could it, really, when over half the participants, including the most egregious carbon emitter of them all-China-didn't even want to be there. With energy consumption per capita at a tenth of ours, the only thing that interests countries like China is emitting a whole lot more. That country may lead the world in clean wind power, but it also has more coal plants spewing emissions than the U.S., UK and Japan combined.

So it's only natural that people in this part of the world would be skeptical, if not downright cynical, about trying to go down the multilateral path ever again.

But just because North Americans have lost faith in international environmental summits doesn't mean that environmental-and, in particular, carbon-concerns don't factor more and more into our economies and our everyday lives.

Try setting up a brand-spanking new coal-fired power plant, like the 800 China and India will have on the go, and see how far you get in the approval process. With the exception of major coal-producing areas like Wyoming, West Virginia and Alberta, you can't get new coal-fired facilities licensed anymore, not even in places like Texas, which still get nearly half their power from coal, let alone in holier-than-thou states like California.

Unlike the plethora of platitudes and pontifications that came out of Copenhagen, North American power users put their money where their mouths are. It costs a lot more to generate a kilowatt of electricity from natural gas, or, even more, from running a nuclear power plant, than from burning still-abundant but carbon-dirty coal.

You can stand wherever you want on the global climate change debate. (I'm no climatologist, but it seems to me the recent images of open water in the once-frozen Arctic Ocean are pretty compelling evidence, even if it'll take another 300 years to melt the Himalayan snow cap.) But whether or not you believe in anthropogenic global warming isn't really the point.

The point is that we all live in one world, and what's valid at one end of the world should be valid at the other end. There can't be ever-more-expensive carbon abatement restrictions on the side of the planet that thinks its emissions are responsible for adverse climate change, while on the other side there's a doubling in global coal consumption over the next two decades.

If we think global warming is for real, we need to put a price on our own carbon emissions, and slap a carbon tariff on everyone else's.

Otherwise, why can't we build coal plants too?

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