Public investment can stop emissions faster than relying on private sector
David Roberts comments ruefully on the lack of a clean energy coalition for progressives to join, and on the lack of common talking points on clean energy — which allows the right eat our lunch on drilling.
I’ve argued in the past that links between greens and progressive are more effective than trying to win the conservative movement over (though individual conservatives should be welcomed). The truth is, there is no solution that will lower oil prices below $100 a barrel: not drilling, not nuclear, not solar or wind, and not even massive efficiency. We have to replace oil, and anything that will do this (which does not include more drilling or nuclear) will take time to implement.
What we can offer are programs that help people’s pocketbooks in other areas. We can’t lower the cost of oil, but we can lower the cost of living in the short run — and get the oil monkey and the greenhouse gas monkey off our nation’s back in the long run. We won’t come up with slogans as pithy as “drill everywhere” — the disadvantage of basing a campaign on workable solutions is you can’t just make stuff up. Our slogan would have to be along the lines of: “Nobody can make more oil; but we can put money in your pocket.” (Someone better than I am at slogans please condense this.) What actual policies could lie behind this slogan?
If environmentalism was really a movement and tied to a larger progressive movement, we could support universal health care. I would favor single-payer, but at least something that would provide decent coverage to everybody and lower costs. (This, umm, comes back to single-payer, since incremental reforms tend not to actually control costs.) Health care reform would not lower the price of a single tank of gas or drop one utility bill, but it would save enough money that higher gas prices and utility bills would not hurt so much until the problem is solved.
We could support, as the Apollo Institute and Green for All do, a subsidized program to massively insulate and weather-seal existing buildings (I would argue along with tough Passivhaus level standards for new buildings). Since only a tiny percent of oil is used to heat buildings and even less to cool them, this would not save a significant amount of oil, but it would put money into the public pocket and lower the pain of higher energy prices (and of course lower greenhouse emissions).
Similarly, we could end biofuel subsidies and shift those and agriculture subsidies in general to sustainable agriculture. That would help lower food prices, since at least some World Bank analysts estimate that 75 percent of recent food price increases derives from biofuel use. It would also lower fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions by U.S. agriculture.
What about stuff that would work in the medium-term and long-term? Alan Drake has one proposal that could reduce oil consumption by 10 percent over the course of six years for a total cost of approximately $450 billion by upgrading rail to the point where we could shift 85 percent of ton-miles currently moved by truck to trains. That is pain relief, a reduction in greenhouse emissions, and lowered oil-usage. Drake also suggests putting money into light rail and bicycle and walking paths. I would include buses, because we won’t shift 100 percent of passenger movement to rail and bicycles and shanks mare in the next 10 years, so buses will continue to be part of how people get around.
I would also support Al Gore’s proposal to phase out all fossil fuel electrical production over ten years. This does remove about 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. It does not save much oil. (The only oil going into U.S. electricity production is a bit used for peaking plus some in remote areas that can’t get any other fuel.)
If you were laying out an optimum path, building enough base solar and wind to replace the half or so of electricity generated by coal, plus following Alan Drake’s ideas to capture the low hanging transportation fruit, plus putting in place massive efficiency increases in industrial, commercial, and residential use would probably save more emissions, and certainly more oil over a 10 year period. On the other hand, if for some reason a coalition could be built and fossil fuel electricity actually eliminated that would be one heck of a base for phasing out other emissions quickly — one of the most expensive part of the change would be done. What would be left would be expanding this fossil free grid and picking low hanging fruit, so there is certainly a political case to be made for Gore’s path — excluding the carbon capture portion, which makes absolutely no sense.
But this certainly demonstrates that public investment is more critical than a carbon price. Some of the funding for Drake’s proposal could come from private investors, but the vast majority would require public funding (I suspect $300 billion public, $150 billion private).
Similarly, I don’t think Gore’s proposal is going to happen based on carbon pricing or even a large direct per kWh subsidy. Reliable electricity supply is not just a matter of providing kilowatt hours. You need the right amounts of the right types of supply in the right places, the right ratio of solar to wind, the right amounts of redundancy, the right amounts of transmission, the right amounts of storage and demand management, all to meet long-term rather than just short-term needs. You need investment in areas with classically low demand elasticity, and long-term planning in areas where private investment has notoriously short time horizons.
In short, neither negative nor positive price signals are likely to achieve these results. There was a reason utilities were considered a classic public good; all the counter arguments for privatization and deregulation don’t seem to have worked out well in practice. This is a classic case for public investment. One possible way to do it is a public/cooperative partnership as opposed to more familiar public/private partnerships. The transmission and storage network should be done under straight public ownership. The base-and-load following solar, and wind with flow battery storage should be owned by local cooperatives consisting of all the people in areas who will be affected by social effects of the wind or solar farms, and all the people who are major local markets for the power. Financing and subsidies should be provided federally to make starting these cooperatives financially viable for local communities.
Similarly, price signals produce very slow responses in insulating and improving efficiency in buildings. Again, programs such as those Jon Rynn has described can be a solution, where payback for such improvements is tied to occupation of a building rather than being a liability of ownership can help. Unsubsidized, these still have limits much lower than payback. (The monthly payment occupants are willing to assume is still far lower than potential utility bill savings.) So, substantial subsidies of one-third to one-half of total cost will need to be combined with such programs.
While I strongly support light rail (which always requires public funding or a subsidy of some sort), light rail takes time to plan and build. (This can be shortened by the fact that there are a lot of unfunded light rail proposals around, some of which could be implement as proposed, and other which can be updated quickly.) Still in the short run, the alternative to cars are sidewalks, bikes, and buses — so increased federal bus subsidies, and funding of sidewalks and bicycle paths could provide some short-term decreases in oil use.
Agriculture offers revenue and cost neutral opportunities to lower emissions, save oil, and put money into the pockets of farmers and consumers. Redirect current subsidies for biofuels and conventional agriculture to sustainable (low input, soil building) agriculture. Redirect some of the subsidies that currently go to grains, oil seeds, and pulses into supporting fresh fruits and vegetables. I would also like to find a way to cut off large corporate farming (like Archer Daniels Midland) from such subsidies.
A comprehensive green contribution to the progressive agenda would be much larger than these examples — including electrification of all ground passenger transport (not just freight and the portion replaced by implementing existing light rail plans). You can find a more comprehensive outline of what needs to be done and range of costs in this spreadsheet. What I’ve outlined gives a taste, and I think supports the argument that a majority of the emissions reductions we need could be supplied through public investment and rule-based regulation, without the need for a carbon price. We would still ultimately need that carbon price to encourage industrial savings, to avoid rebound effects, and to mop up. But most urgent reductions could be promoted faster through public investment rather than a carbon price, and most of the rest via old fashioned rule-based regulation. A carbon price is ultimately needed, but it is the least priority, as demonstrated by the very tiny consumption drops a tripling in oil prices has produced.