Climate & Energy

Carbon policy in tonight's Dem debate

Obama puts the 100 percent auction idea into the mainstream

There were presidential debates on both sides tonight. I don’t have cable, so I didn’t watch them. However, a friend sent along this bit of transcript from the Dem, from a question on climate policy: GIBSON: All right. Let me turn to something else. Reversing — you invoked the name of Al Gore a few moments ago — reversing or slowing global warming is going to take sacrifice. I’m sort of sorry Chris Dodd isn’t here because he’s talked a lot about a carbon tax in this election. Al Gore favors a carbon tax. None of you have favored a …

Peter Barnes' cap-and-dividend plan is fatally incomplete

An effective climate plans needs to incorporate intelligently regulated energy efficiency standards

Andy Revkin at the NY Times has given a lot of ink to the cap-and-dividend plan (see here and here) by Peter Barnes, a founder of Working Assets. Revkin says Barnes "has long studied various bills and proposals for cutting emissions of carbon dioxide to limit global warming. He sees fatal flaws in every one." I don't see any fatal flaws in either Obama's plan or Mrs. Clinton's -- they are both terrific and comprehensive, unlike Barnes'. His goal is the same as theirs -- to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050. But his solution is fatally incomplete: He proposes a "cap and dividend" system that charges a rising fee on sources of greenhouse-gas emissions (to propel a long-term shift away from such pollution) and returns the revenue to citizens, rich or poor, through a direct payment not unlike the checks that Alaska residents get every year from fees paid to the state by oil companies. That's pretty much it. What caught my attention in Revkin's piece is Barnes' answer to the last question posed: What about laws such as better efficiency standards? (Nancy Anderson) N.Y. Times columnist Tom Friedman has made a crucial distinction between incremental policies and transformative ones. Cap-and-dividend is transformative. It will get us to 80% emission reductions and create a clean energy infrastructure in the process. Raising efficiency standards for autos, appliances and buildings is a good thing to do, but it won't transform our economy or cut emissions 80%. That is, ironically, almost exactly backwards. Barnes apparently thinks plans like Obama's and Clinton's are loaded up with things like much tougher fuel economy standards and utility decoupling and federal clean-tech programs because the senators just love regulations and government spending (I know many of you conservatives out there think that). In fact, trying to stabilize at 450 ppm only using a price for carbon, as Barnes proposes, is wildly impractical and a political non-starter. That's because, at its most basic level, a price for carbon most directly encourages fuel-switching (especially from coal), but does not particularly encourage efficiency. That's why most traditional economic models require a very high (read "unduly brutal" and "politically unacceptable") price for carbon to get deep reductions.

Predictions for 2008: III

The renewable portfolio standard will return

The Renewable Portfolio Standard will return to Congress. Multiple Dems have vowed that the RPS will return as a separate bill when Congress is back in session. I believe them exactly 87 percent. Despite the recent energy bill debacle, the RPS is not entirely political poison. Some 29 states have adopted one (a confusing patchwork!) and a 10 percent RPS actually passed in the Senate in 2005, only to be rejected by the House (the inverse of what happened this year). The "one size fits all" complaint is largely baseless; a well-designed RPS would be an economic boon for every …

Bad combo

Cheap coal and $100 oil

Amid vague talk of how $100/barrel oil might represent a kind of sea change, inspiring corporations and individuals to lower their carbon footprints, the smart money is betting on another direction: the burning of more coal. That’s a harrowing trend. As NASA climatologist James Hanson recently put it: Coal will determine whether we continue to increase climate change or slow the human impact … Increased fossil fuel CO2 in the air today, compared to the pre-industrial atmosphere, is due 50% to coal, 35% to oil and 15% to gas. Hanson must be frowning at recent reports of a coal boom …

For every 1 degree Celsius globe warms, some 21,000 people could die, says study

For every 1 degree Celsius of anthropogenic global warming, some 21,000 people worldwide could die, including more than 1,000 in the U.S., says a new study in Geophysical Research Letters. According to computer modeling by researcher Mark Jacobson, increased air pollution due to rising carbon-dioxide levels will lead to more fatalities. “This is a cause and effect relationship, not just a correlation,” says Jacobson. Cities that already experience high air pollution will have the highest mortality rates. California, which has six of the 10 smoggiest cities in the U.S., “bears the brunt of climate change in terms of air pollution …

Shorter winters weaken forest carbon sinks

New study says trees are absorbing less CO2 than predicted

Forests have gained a lot of attention in the climate change conversation because of their ability to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Individuals can buy "reforestation" offsets on the internet. There's talk of including credits for carbon stored in trees and wood products as part of many proposed cap-and-trade systems. Cities and businesses are even planting trees as part of their efforts to slow climate change. But forest ecosystems are, by their nature, unpredictable. And new research shows carbon sinks are weaker than predicted. There's no doubt that forests, and their tremendous ability to store carbon, can play a role in protecting the climate. But we have to be cautious about that role. Forest ecosystems are, by their nature, unpredictable -- - there's simply no way to know how much carbon a forest will store over the long haul. Worse, climate change itself magnifies those uncertainties. If a warmer climate makes forest fires more frequent -- as some people believe is possible -- then a lot of "offsets" will simply go up in smoke. Or consider BC's devastating pine beetle infestation -- an example of how ecosystem disruption can fell more trees than any chainsaw. And there's troubling news today that makes us more cautious than ever: A new global study by researchers at the University of Helsinki shows that trees are absorbing less CO2 than predicted, as the world warms and vegetation patterns shift.

For reals?

Toshiba said to have developed mini nuclear reactor

Says Next Energy News: Toshiba has developed a new class of micro size Nuclear Reactors that is designed to power individual apartment buildings or city blocks. The new reactor, which is only 20 feet by 6 feet, could change everything for small remote communities, small businesses or even a group of neighbors who are fed up with the power companies and want more control over their energy needs. The 200 kilowatt Toshiba designed reactor is engineered to be fail-safe and totally automatic and will not overheat. Unlike traditional nuclear reactors the new micro reactor uses no control rods to initiate …

California stats say state emissions-reduction plan far more effective than federal law

When the U.S. EPA denied California the right to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles, the agency reasoned that the just-passed energy bill’s boost to national fuel-economy standards would be stronger emissions-reduction policy than the state’s plan. California, which has sued, would beg to differ, and has released statistics refuting the EPA’s claim. For example: The new federal law will cut greenhouse-gas emissions in California by 8 million tons by 2016; if California’s plan was allowed to go forward, emissions would be reduced 17 million tons in the same time period. If 12 other states adopted California’s law (as 12 other …

Why grandfathering sucks

More on cap-and-trade systems

Here's a clear demonstration of why, in a cap-and-trade system, grandfathering emissions rights to historic polluters is a terrible idea: The UK's biggest polluters will reap a windfall of at least £6bn from rising power prices and the soaring value of carbon under the new European carbon trading scheme ... Critics argue ... that the scheme, under which nearly all allowances are granted free of charge rather than having to be bought by big polluters, has created a distorted market in which the worst offenders will enjoy bumper profits while incurring no extra underlying cost for producing greenhouse gases. That's just about right: handing out pollution rights for free, as the European emissions trading system did, creates the potential for massive, unearned windfall profits. Permits will have a market value -- someone will want to buy them. So when we hand out emissions permits at no cost, we're essentially handing out free money. There may be a few exceptions to this rule: a few economic sectors where free allocation won't lead to windfall profits. But they're the exceptions. The rule (as demonstrated in Europe) is that grandfathering is great for polluters, and bad for consumers. So maybe that's why lots of big oil and coal companies are so supportive of grandfathering ...

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