My last article made the point that in fighting climate chaos, only a refundable carbon tax, one that returns revenues directly to the population, mitigates regressivity in way that benefits those hit hardest by such a tax.

It concludes by pointing out that just about everyone who pays serious attention to the problem of climate chaos concludes that carbon taxes or cap and trade systems — methods of putting a price on carbon — cannot by themselves solve the problem. This post will explore in a bit more detail what additional measures can help reduce emissions.

We could institute rule-based regulations in the following areas:

  • Building regulations. Many Scandinavian and European nations have been successful with regulations specifying maximum climate-control energy use for both residential and commercial buildings. Such regulations include comfort standards, so that goals are not achieved by frying or freezing building inhabitants, and air-quality standards, so they are not achieved at the expense of health. I would suggest the rules apply per person rather than per square foot — thus avoiding blowback from more efficient but larger buildings.

    New buildings would be an exception to the “ratcheting”; there is no reason any new building should produce more than 10 to 20 percent of the per capita emissions of typical contemporary American buildings. Retail and industrial buildings would not be so easy to regulate; energy-intensive equipment used in such contexts would make uniform standards impractical. This, of course, is why a price on carbon is needed; so that regulation may be confined to areas where we know what results are desirable and we may avoid micromanagement.

  • Transportation standards. There is no reason we can’t specify maximum emissions per passenger mile, and emissions per freight ton.
  • Standards for industrial equipment and appliances. I’d suggest using Japanese style dynamic scoring for appliances and equipment. Start out with reasonable standards, without worrying too much whether they are too weak or not. But have in place a rule that the most efficient appliance or piece of equipment in a certain class becomes the new minimum standard. In other words, best available technology becomes the minimum. Standards will continually ratchet up, and emissions down.
  • Agriculture and forestry. Require that agriculture and forestry at minimum be carbon neutral — that is, sequester carbon equivalent to greenhouse emissions. Provide subsidies for sequestration substantially beyond this, measured conservatively and with margins of error. Don’t allow sales of credits, but provide the subsidies in cash. This ensures that any errors are isolated; because soil sequestration is not being used as an excuse for, say, burning coal, measurement errors don’t cascade into greatly increased emissions.
  • Electrical generation. Require all new power plants to be low carbon. Require all electrical utility districts to reduce total greenhouse emissions by three to five percent each year. It is time we started shutting down coal-based power plants.
  • Limit emissions from planes separately from other caps or taxes. Otherwise they will drive the automatic ratchets of carbon taxes (or the price of permits) to astoundingly high levels.
  • Regulate the 18 greenhouse gases that exist in addition to CO2, CH4, and N2O separately. Require phasing out where possible, recycling and recovery where not. They are all used in specialized enough applications that direct regulation is possible. Even for methane, taxes or permits aside, we could at least outlaw unflared emissions, and require recovery for use where it could be done for under a certain cost.
  • Public investment in mature technologies that would reduce the difference between base and peak demand, reduce seasonal peaks, and make base requirements a larger percent of total demand. These would include:
    1. High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines that would connect diverse power sources and cooling and heating climates.
    2. The electranet, which would shift demand to when the grid could most easily handle it — to the extent possible. This includes smart appliances, and also using phase-change materials, thermal mass, or natural zeolites to store heat or cold generated off-peak for on-peak use.
    3. Electrical storage, which can even out variable sources and let plants optimized for base loads provide some peaking power as well, without wasting capacity.

    Note that these are no-regrets investments. There is no low-carbon power source on the market or in the pipeline that would not benefit from lower peaks, and from more demand becoming base demand; wind, nuclear, solar all would gain. Similarly, the same storage that would let wind supply base loads would let nukes supply peaking capability without wasting expensive capital. No I do not think nukes are a good idea — but the point is that these investments are good ones even if I am wrong.

  • Shift subsidies from cars and trucks to rail. No, rail can’t go everywhere. But it is competing with one hand tied behind its back. Build light rail to get passenger traffic off the heavy rail tracks. Stop subsidizing trucking with fuel taxes collected from passenger cars, and from all types of rail. Stop making federal funds available for highways on better terms than they are available for rail. Shift as much freight as possible to heavy rail, and as much commuter and in-city passenger traffic as possible to light rail.
  • Provide a clean energy development fund to help subsidize efficiency and solar space and hot-water heating in existing buildings. Provide smaller subsidies for new buildings.
  • Solar cells: finance a billion-dollar plant to break the chicken/egg deadlock. Solar cells are expected to take decades to reach price parity with fossil fuels. The problem is not technology, but scale. Because the market is too small, no one wants to build a large enough plant to take mass produced cells with the full economy of scale required to bring the price down. Because the price is too high, no one wants to purchase cells in the quantity required to bring the price down. So long as such a subsidized plant brought solar cell prices down enough, and created the needed market, it would not matter if the technology chosen was less than optimum. Once the market was created, if technology existed to offer better quality for the same price, or the same quality at better prices, private industry would take advantage of the opportunity to out-compete the plant — in spite of its one-time subsidy. In all probability, that is exactly what would happen. The subsidized plant would in essence act as a sacrificial lamb — breaking the deadlock, then being devoured by predators. That is why no private company wants to be the first without subsidy.

How do we pay for all these things if, as I’ve proposed, money from the carbon tax or permit auctioning is returned to the public? We have lots of alternatives, any one of which could provide sufficient funds:

  • Use some of the ~$500 billion per year we spend on our military. Clean energy will contribute a lot more to our national security than stupid wars and empire building.
  • Recover some of the tax cuts we’ve given the rich from the Reagan presidency forward. None of these tax cuts ever bought us higher rates of growth than the Kennedy era.
  • Put a Tobin tax on currency speculation.

Remember that, as David Roberts noted, global warming is both too big and too small an issue. He was talking about time scale. But I also think most of what needs to be done to fight global warming will have to be done for reasons other than fighting global warming.

For example, people in the U.S. won’t support cuts in the military just to pay for clean energy (or any other good cause). But if we as a nation can get over the deep streak of cowardice 9/11 aroused — especially in people who were far from Ground Zero — maybe we will get sick of empire, and decide to lift our foot off the world’s neck.

I don’t think the “tax=evil/profits=good” prejudice will ever lift just because we need clean energy. But maybe people will eventually notice that there are things governments can do better than large corporations; at that point, maybe a blinding flash of insight will occur: if Exxon has to pay slightly higher taxes to finance those things, that is a worthwhile sacrifice. Clean energy is one of the things Exxon’s noble sacrifice can pay for.

Eventually I will do a follow-up post on the politics of fighting global warming. Because I want to get back to writing about technology, that will be postponed a while.