WASHINGTON — Steps to curb global warming could shift 30 percent of the basic chemical industry — including plastics — from the United States to the developing world in the next 30 years, at least according to one U.S. government study.
The plastics industry is speaking out on the issue.
Environmentalists and the White House, on the other hand, argue that if nothing is done, the world will face more-intense heat waves and droughts, flooding from rising ocean waters and the spreading of infectious diseases.
Japan will host a global-warming summit in December, and negotiators appear to favor more stringent restrictions on the developed world, making it more likely that production of resin, and ultimately plastic products, will shift overseas.
Industry attention is picking up. The head of Eastman Chemical Co., in Kingsport, Tenn., spoke Oct. 6 at a White House forum on global warming, and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. took a formal position late last month.
``Legally binding commitments requiring only developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will export economic growth and jobs from the U.S. to developing countries such as China, India and Mexico,'' said Earnest Deavenport, Eastman Chemical Co. chief executive officer.
Leaders of SPI, based in Washington, approved a resolution Sept. 25 that said reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels or below, as the treaty aims to do, would be destructive to the U.S. plastics industry. SPI disputed the science linking greenhouse gases to global warming, and said that any treaty must apply to both developing and developed countries.
Without limits on developing countries, all the treaty would do is move resin manufacturing plants overseas, shifting wealth without lowering emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, said Lewis Freeman, SPI vice president of government affairs.
A Department of Energy study released in July said that a global- warming treaty would shift 20-30 percent of the basic chemical industry to developing countries in 30 years, as companies replace older plants. That study analyzes 1996 proposals from other countries, and said it does not take into account emissions trading and other flexible policies advocated by President Clinton.
A study released Oct. 9 by the Washington-based Economic Strategy Institute found that energy taxes would cause U.S. chemical companies to move more production overseas. And it said U.S. chemical manufacturers would feel the pinch more than European competitors because energy costs in the United States are so much lower than in Europe now, and the U.S. chemical industry is more dependent on energy-intensive sectors like plastics than Europe.
Paul Cicio, government relations manager for Dow Chemical Co. in Washington, said the treaty would put caps on emissions of hydrocarbons. A European Union proposal to require greenhouse gases to be 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2010, for example, would require current emission levels to be reduced 28 percent.
``You cannot produce plastics with anything other than hydrocarbons,'' he said. ``If you put a cap on hydrocarbons, where will the plastics come from?''
But supporters of a global-climate treaty say industries exaggerate the costs of pollution control.
``History tells us that every time we have faced an environmental challenge — from getting the lead out of gasoline, to protecting the ozone layer, to controlling acid rain — there have been those in industry that have said it won't work and will wreck the economy,'' said Daniel Lashof, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. ``They have never been right.''
Reducing acid rain pollution, for example, was estimated to cost $1,500 per ton of sulfur emission reductions, but now emissions credits are trading for $100 a ton — 6 percent of estimates — Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told a recent congressional hearing.
Several observers predicted that developing countries will not have to meet binding commitments at the Japanese summit. European governments also do not favor binding targets for developing countries.
U.S. government officials have said developing countries should face goals that are fair for their level of development. The Senate voted 95-0 this summer to require that any treaty have some commitments from the developing world.
``I fear that some who have argued that the United States should not take any action against global warming unless developing countries simultaneously commit to similar action are not motivated by a desire to improve the climate treaty, but by a desire to kill it,'' Lashof said.