Friday, January 2, 2009

A Faint Hope of Getting it Right on the Environment

Happy New Year everyone! I hope the year for you is getting off to a good start! On the political side of things my spirits were brightened a bit to see this story on National Newswatch (which I’ve included below). One of the leading climatologists at NASA is openly lobbying the incoming Obama administration to impose a carbon tax, arguing (as Liberals did in the last election) that it is the ONLY feasible approach in the short term to make the reductions we need in greenhouse gas emissions. Even though I still think the odds are slim Obama will impose a carbon tax, this climatologist isn’t the only leading figure to call for a carbon tax, as both Al Gore and Bill Clinton have called for it recently too. IF Obama did decide for this more sensible and needed approach I would LOVE nothing more than to see the reactions of the Conservatives and the NDP.

A carbon tax in the U.S. would mean Canada would be STRONGLY compelled to have one as well (as we should regardless). Even though the idea is probably even a tougher sell in the U.S. than here, Obama will have an unprecedented honeymoon to bring in sweeping policies in his first 100 days. It’s either now or never for him for a carbon tax though, if he doesn’t move on it immediately, it won’t sell nearly as well later. However, if Obama opts for an exclusively cap-and-trade approach, I’m afraid we will be doomed to the same here in Canada for at least the next few years (even though I still think it’s a poor precedent for Liberals to reject a sound policy after just one election in which dozens of other issues and our own organizational weaknesses were big factors in our loss as well). Cap-and-trade over a carbon tax might seem like good politics, but it certainly isn't the best policy. But for now I’ll hold out the faint hope that Obama will get it right.
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Reality Bites
Halifax news, politics and snark, by Tim Bousquet

Hansen: Dion was right
January 01, 2009 04:34 PM

James Hansen is the NASA scientist who first testified to the US Senate on the climatic challenges facing the globe in 1988, and continues to be one of the leading climatologists researching the issue.

Today, New Year's Day, Hansen releases a letter to Michelle and Barack Obama:, in which he underscores the importance of taking quick action to address global warming. The letter's worth reading in its entirety, but of special interest to Canadians may be the section that deals with the need for a carbon tax. Hansen argues not just that a carbon tax is necessary, but also that a cap and trade system is not a viable alternative.

As you'll recall, St├ęphane Dion campaigned on a carbon tax. Jack Layton condemned it, saying he would prefer a cap and trade system, and Stephen Harper ridiculed it as an economy killer. There were no doubt many reasons why he lost in the polls, but Canadians overwhelmingly rejected Dion and therefore the carbon tax. But here we are, three months later, and the man who arguably knows more about global warming than any other human tells us we can't avoid cataclysmic climate change without a carbon tax:
The physics of the matter, together with empirical data, also define the need for a carbon tax. Alternatives such as emission reduction targets, cap and trade, cap and dividend, do not work, as proven by honest efforts of the 'greenest' countries to comply with the Kyoto Protocol:

(1) Japan: accepted the strongest emission reduction targets, appropriately prides itself on having the most energy-efficient industry, and yet its use of coal has sharply increased, as have its total CO2 emissions. Japan offset its increases with purchases of credits through the clean development mechanism in China, intended to reduce emissions there, but Chinese emissions increased rapidly.

(2) Germany: subsidizes renewable energies heavily and accepts strong emission reduction targets, yet plans to build a large number of coal-fired power plants. They assert that they will have cap-and-trade, with a cap that reduces emissions by whatever amount is needed. But the physics tells us that if they continue to burn coal, no cap can solve the problem, because of the long carbon dioxide lifetime.

(3) Other cases are described on my Columbia University web site, e.g., Switzerland finances construction of coal plants, Sweden builds them, and Australia exports coal and sets atmospheric carbon dioxide goals so large as to guarantee destruction of much of the life on the planet.

Indeed, 'goals' and 'caps' on carbon emissions are practically worthless, if coal emissions continue, because of the exceedingly long lifetime of carbon dioxide in the air. Nobody realistically expects that the large readily available pools of oil and gas will be left in the ground. Caps will not cause that to happen – caps only slow the rate at which the oil and gas are used. The only solution is to cut off the coal source (and unconventional fossil fuels).

Coal phase-out and transition to the post-fossil fuel era requires an increasing carbon price. A carbon tax at the wellhead or port of entry reduces all uses of a fuel. In contrast, a less comprehensive cap has the perverse effect of lowering the price of the fuel for other uses, undercutting clean energy sources.vi In contrast to the impracticality of all nations agreeing to caps, and the impossibility of enforcement, a carbon tax can readily be made near-global.
It's hard to read these words and not think that Canadians have made a terrible blunder.

Adding: Hansen says more about the issue here:
"Goals" for percentage CO2 emission reductions and "cap & trade & dividend" are a threat to the planet, weak tea, not commensurate with the task of getting CO2 back to 350 ppm and less. Note:

(1) There must be a tax at the mine or port of entry, the first sale of oil, gas and coal, so every direct and indirect use of the fuel is affected. Anything less means that the reduction of demand for the fuel will make it cheaper for some uses; e.g., people will start burning coal in their stoves. Peter Barnes' idea to push the cap upstream to the extent possible is not adequate nor is a 'gas tax' suggested by NY Times and others. A comprehensive approach is needed.

(2) "Cap & trade & dividend" creates Wall Street millionaires and complex bureaucracy. The public is fed up with that – rightly so. A single carbon tax rate can be adjusted upward affecting all activities appropriately. With 100% dividend the public will allow a carbon price adequate to the job, i.e., helping us move to the post- fossil-fuel world.

(3) Supply 'caps' cannot yield a really big reduction because of the weapon: 'shortages'. All a utility has to say is 'blackout coming' and politicians and public have to cave in – we are not going to have the lights turned out. Will the public allow a high enough tax rate Yes, dividends will exceed tax for most people concerned about their bills.

(4) A tax is not sufficient. All other measures, such as building codes, are needed. But with millions of buildings, all construction codes and operations cannot be enforced. A rising carbon price provides effective enforcement.

(5) Wouldn't it be cheaper to let people burn the dirtiest fuel? No. The clean future that we aim for, including more efficient energy use, is not more expensive. For example, you may have read about passively heated homes that require little energy and increase construction costs only several percent. Such possibilities remain the oddball (with high price tag), not the standard construction, unless the government adopts policies that make things happen.

Tim Bousquet


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