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Remember Al Gore - Environmental Leader?

Time For A New Approach

Some of the nation's most powerful environmental lobbies launched an attack last June against a politician. They felt he had undermined their efforts to toughen clean-air standards and win strong US commitment to reduce the heat-trapping carbon emissions linked to the global climate-change threat.

The target wasn't Newt Gingrich or Trent Lott. It was Vice President Al Gore, perhaps the environmental movement's strongest ally in Washington.

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"What we need and what we expect is leadership," said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters (LVC), who wanted Gore to publicly pressure President Clinton to adopt the standards LVC sought. "Not to speak out and not to influence the president is not leadership."

Days later, the Clinton administration acceded to Ms. Callahan's call and backed the clean-air mandates. Mr. Gore received much of the credit.

That pattern seemed to repeat itself a few weeks later, when environmental leaders won support from Clinton and Gore for a commitment to binding reductions in carbon emissions to be presented at the global climate-treaty negotiations in Kyoto, Japan.

When the administration's plan was released, however, environmentalists were dismayed. The rhetoric of Al Gore the candidate about the need to respond to global climate change had, it seemed, been replaced with a political response not unlike President Bush's, whom Gore criticized in his 1992 book "Earth in the Balance."

But when push came to shove during final negotiations at Kyoto, it was Gore who took the credit for strengthening a global climate-change program that now requires the US to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Gore could do more. His mistake has been to let the Beltway environmental groups set the agenda, then play the compromise game and split the difference with the business community. Under that tired formula, the old business-versus-planet paradigm is self-fulfilling.

If Gore wants to win the election in 2000 and change history, he needs to assert leadership on behalf of a new set of principles.

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* Think globally. People and companies make the wisest decisions when they're responsible for all the costs and benefits of their actions. When some costs and benefits are held privately, and other major ones absorbed by the community, people make decisions that shift costs to the community.

* Act locally. When decisions are made, individually or collectively, the best place to make them is closest to where the problem occurs.

* Polluter pays. If pollution is free to the generator, the generator will pollute more. When businesses must pollute to survive, the only businesses that will survive will be the polluters. Pollution can only be reduced if the generator benefits from the reduction.

How might these principles translate into policies? Under today's system, pollution is expensive to everyone but the generator. A ton of nitric oxide, a key ingredient in urban smog, has opportunity costs of $14,000 to $26,000, according to the California Energy Commission. Yet, under federal clean air and water laws, pollution is free up to politically tolerable limits, and then it's a crime punishable by massive fines. Companies have no incentive to cut pollution toward zero and every incentive to battle fines in the courts.

In the related field of solid waste management, thousands of communities have switched to an alternative approach: "Pay as You Throw" programs that charge households and businesses for every unit of waste they generate, cutting waste by as much as half.

Gore could champion the same approach for nitric oxide; sulfur dioxide, the main culprit in acid rain; and even carbon dioxide. By charging small fees for every ton of pollution emitted, generators will be rewarded for every unit they can design away.

Gore also could help fine-tune the administration's ideas on trading air pollution emissions. Experts are divided over the costs of cutting carbon emissions to stabilize the earth's ability to maintain temperature ranges. Some, like Robert Repetto of the World Resources Institute, say opportunities for efficiency are so vast that reductions can pay for themselves. Others, like Paul Portney of Resources for the Future, worry cuts could take a few percentage point bites out of GDP. Computer models support Mr. Portney's position, suggesting a cost of $30-$40 per ton of carbon, or a dime per gallon of gasoline, and 1/2-cent per kilowatt of electricity.

Yet the marketplace suggest a lower price tag. Carbon offsets now often cost less than a dollar a ton. Gore could resolve the debate by advocating a get-your-feet-wet carbon trading initiative. Phase One would cap emissions at present levels and require net-reduction offsets from any new sources. Phase Two could target more aggressive binding reductions, with built-in flexibility when short-term costs are too high, to give technology a chance to catch up.

Advocating a new environmentalism doesn't require that Gore oppose the old agenda, only that he give substance to what until now has been rhetoric: that the environment and economy need not be at odds, and that the imperatives of each can be met at once.

By advocating integrated policy packages that promote dynamic, sustainable growth, Gore not only can win over the technology, environmental, and social interest groups that can help him win the White House, but far surpass the incremental, one-dimensional gains environmentalists are likely to be left with. Environmental groups could revitalize their ranks, too, thinking globally and acting locally to reinvent environmentalism.

* Bill Shireman is president of Global Futures, a Sacramento, Calif.-based think tank dedicated to advocating sustainable business practices.

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