'Tis the season for climate plan meta-analysis. I get asked a lot about the presidential candidates' environmental bona fides, which has led me to put together the following long, dense, and absolutely riveting primer on what to look for in a good climate change plan. These principles apply to cap-and-trade style programs, because that's what all the presidential candidates are proposing. 1. Go deep The "cap" part of cap-and-trade refers to the emissions level mandated by the legislation. Good legislation considers both the short term and the long term. The available science indicates we need an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. For a variety of reasons (CO2 is a long-lived pollutant; the initial cuts will be easiest, etc.) we should start cutting quickly. Twenty percent by 2020 is a reasonable interim target. Use these figures as a benchmark, but don't obsess over them. A climate change plan that calls for an 87 percent cut is not necessarily better than one calling for an 84 percent cut. Our understanding of climate change will progress over the next several decades, and we'll adjust accordingly. The important thing for now is that the planned cuts are sufficiently deep and predictable to stimulate a cascade of infrastructure improvements.
The following post was first published on Passing Through, The Nation‘s guest blog, where I will be posting all month. Regular readers of Grist know that coal is the enemy of the human race. They may also know that coal is on the ropes and, despite its recent PR blitz, in something of panic. Let’s take a look at some news from just the past week or so. A new report from gas, coal, and power consulting firm Wood MacKensie says that "the rate of coal plant cancellations accelerated during 2007 to the point that more than 50% of the …
… or else a giant Burmese python will eat your children!!1!
A semi-recent issue of High Country News carried a feature on the deep-rock carbon sequestration potential in the northwestern U.S.: it's maybe possible to inject CO2 captured from power plants into the basalt that underlies the region, producing inert calcium carbonate. If so, there's apparently enough basalt to capture centuries of the region's carbon emissions. It's safe to say the research has its doubters. And carbon sequestration in general deserves the hairy eyeball: even if proven both ecologically and geologically viable and economically feasible, if it leads to the continued destruction of Appalachia and vast tracts of the West for coal, count me out. Elsewhere, a study's findings added to the body of evidence that shellfish, like clams, oysters, and mussels (oh, and plankton, crustaceans, and corals), will start growing more slowly or dissolving altogether due to anthropogenic ocean acidification (from all of the excess CO2 we produce that goes into oceanic solution), which would dissolve their shells. Fewer/smaller/weaker shellfish would have economic effects, but also much greater impacts on marine life: they're an important food source for everything from fish to whales and birds. My point? These critters fix carbon ("biosequestration") in their shells, so we could start losing an important piece of the ocean's ability to maintain its natural alkalinity, plus its tendency to sequester carbon, just when they're most needed. My disinterested and clear-eyed proposal, then, is increased aquaculture of mollusks in bays, sounds, estuaries, sloughs, etc. We're already growing tens of millions of pounds of clams alone each year in the U.S., and unlike most other forms of aquaculture, you don't get the massive energetic losses like with the feeding of fish meal to top-of-the-food-chain finfish.
A national carbon tax in the U.S. appears increasingly unlikely, but all sorts of interesting experiments in emissions pricing are underway regionally. First: the California Assembly this week votes on the California Clean Car Discount Act, a "feebate" system that imposes a direct charge on sales of gas guzzlers and uses the funds to reward buyers of fuel sippers. The way it works it pretty simple. If you buy a Chevy Tahoe, you'll have to pony up a $2,500 fee, which will then go straight to all the folks buying Honda Civics. Fees and rebates are determined on a sliding scale based on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle in question. Although not quite a carbon tax, the system does establish clear price signals for energy efficiency, and such feebate systems are an improvement over CAFE. Unfortunately, some members of the assembly are still sitting on the fence:
Last week, the NYT's Andy Revkin blogged about a federal laboratory that says it can take atmospheric carbon dioxide and turn it into gasoline: One selling point with Los Alamos's "Green Freedom" concept, and similar ones, is that reusing the carbon atoms in the captured CO2 molecules as a fuel ingredient avoids the need to find huge repositories for the greenhouse gas. The only problem with that exciting statement is that it is almost certainly not true, a point I will come back to. Now the NYT has published an article on the subject that also overhypes the technology: There is, however, a major caveat that explains why no one has built a carbon-dioxide-to-gasoline factory: it requires a great deal of energy. To deal with that problem, the Los Alamos scientists say they have developed a number of innovations ... Even with those improvements, providing the energy to produce gasoline on a commercial scale -- say, 750,000 gallons a day -- would require a dedicated power plant, preferably a nuclear one, the scientists say.
A while back, Al Gore wondered publicly why young people aren’t out protesting in front of coal plants. Well, here you go: On Monday, a group of young people chained themselves together to prevent construction of a South Florida power plant — 27 of them were arrested. [UPDATE: According to Matt in comments, it was a gas plant, not a coal plant. Should have read closer.] Those Palm Beach cops don’t look very friendly (pictures from Rising Tide): That takes some balls.
Fidel Castro’s step down after 49 years as Cuba’s leader may have implications for biofuels in the country. Castro was outspokenly critical of U.S. biofuel policy, and blocked a proposed expansion by ag giant Archer Daniels Midland into Cuba in the 1990s. But Fidel’s brother Raul, who will assume leadership of Cuba, is a biofuels supporter. Industry analysts have projected that Cuba has the potential to produce up to 3.2 billion gallons of sugar-cane ethanol per year, and the country recently began overhauling its 17 ethanol refineries. Some see a Brazil — with less internal demand for biofuels, and thus …