USA Today on climate change

Our view on climate change: Imperfect ‘cap-and-trade’ is best option to fight warming

It’s complex, costly “” and as good as the political system can produce.

Reasonable people can disagree about how bad global warming will eventually be if nothing is done, and some of the doomsday scenarios might well be overblown. But virtually all climate scientists concur that it’s a dire enough threat that the wise course of action is to sharply curb use of carbon-based fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas.

Since CP has a daily news roundup, I thought I’d add an editorial feature, too, maybe not every day, but occasionally, especially when I’m on travel, as today.

This is from USA Today editorial board, which is I think is fairly mainstream.  Here’s the rest:

Ideally, that would happen without raising costs to consumers or causing some job loss, but that’s a little like saying it would be nice to go to heaven without doing what’s necessary to get there. Solar, wind, nuclear and virtually all lower-emission energy alternatives will cost more, at least initially. The only sure way to move from traditional fuels to a greener mix anytime soon is to begin making it more expensive to continue on the current path and let the market work out the most effective way to do it.

The simplest solution would be a gradually rising tax on carbon-based fuels. In the real world, however, that is a political non-starter, and any tax would inevitably become complex after Congress got done writing in exemptions and discounts for various groups. Further, a tax wouldn’t set a hard limit on greenhouse gas emissions.

That leaves the “cap-and-trade” approach pending on Capitol Hill.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike cap-and-trade. It’s complex, intrusive and would cost money and jobs. But if the threat of human-induced global warming is real, and the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence suggests that it is, this plan or something like it is probably the best tool the political system can produce to begin to counter it.

Cap-and-trade gets its name from the way it would work: Cap greenhouse gas emissions; sell or give away permits for emissions that are allowed; and have utilities, factories and other emitters trade those permits in a special market. A utility, for example, could either fix its plant to emit less greenhouse gases or buy permits from some other business to keep emitting a higher amount. Over time, the cap would get tighter and the permits more expensive.

It’s complicated, but it works. Europe’s cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases, in place since 2005, has helped cut emissions 5% below 1990 levels, and reductions are on track to more than double by 2012. Closer to home, the U.S. began battling acid rain in 1990 with a cap-and-trade regime for sulfur dioxide, which combines with water vapor in the atmosphere to produce sulfuric acid. That plan worked better than even its supporters hoped, slashing emissions at far less cost than projected.

To combat climate change and promote clean energy, the House passed a cap-and-trade bill in June on a 219-212 vote that demonstrated how controversial the measure is. The Senate is waiting to take it up sometime after health care, and it won’t be easy. Every Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted the session when the panel approved a bill this month.

The House plan certainly needs improvement. It is stuffed with favors for well-connected lobbies, a distasteful reminder of Congress’ inability to focus sharply on the national interest. And critics claim consumer costs would be in the range of $3,000 or $4,000 a year per household. But the neutral, non-partisan Congressional Budget Office paints a more manageable picture.

CBO’s analysis of the House bill forecasts an average net cost per household of $175 a year, with the lowest-income households receiving $40 a year in benefits and the highest-income households paying $245. CBO projects that job loss could be “significant” in industries tied to traditional fuels but would be offset by new jobs elsewhere. That all seems an acceptable price compared with the potential consequences of global warming “” melting ice caps, rising sea levels, droughts and wildfires, shifting agricultural patterns and political instability.

Perhaps the most potent arguments against cap-and-trade are that unilateral U.S. action wouldn’t be enough to reverse global warming, and that it would be self-destructive for the U.S. to act without ensuring that rapidly growing greenhouse gas polluters, such as China and India, also limit emissions.

Taken together, though, these criticisms amount to an argument for doing nothing, which is simply not an option after years of official U.S. indifference. When world leaders gather next month in Copenhagen to try to set a framework for international action, they’ll be looking to the U.S. for direction.

It’s true that if the U.S. acts, there’s no guarantee others will go along. But it’s a virtual certainty that if the U.S. doesn’t lead, then no one else is likely to follow.

11 Responses to USA Today on climate change

  1. Peter Sinclair says:

    Well stated, succinct, and mainstream.
    Worth forwarding to timid legislators.

  2. john says:

    The op-ed misses one key point when it says:

    “The only sure way to move from traditional fuels to a greener mix anytime soon is to begin making it more expensive to continue on the current path and let the market work out the most effective way to do it.”


    While the cost per kW will go up, the monthly bill can stay the same for a long time, since there is a residual cost-effective energy efficeincy potential of 40% or more in our economy.

  3. oliver says:

    “…Worth forwarding to timid legislators.”

    As long as they don’t read the reader’s comments (quite negative)

  4. laservisor says:

    Another option for reclaiming US leadership:

  5. Wes Rolley says:

    I guess this is why some Senators are floating a >a href=””>trial balloon about a cap-and-trade system ONLY for utilities. If this is what the firm of Kerry, Graham and Liebermann produces we are all in hot water. air.

    [JR: That is NOT what Kerry et al are proposing.]

  6. Phil Eisner says:

    It is very important that a nation-wide, middle of the road, newspaper like USA Today takes such a responsible and sensible editorial position. There is still some possibility that Congress will pass a decent bill in 2010; I am not near enough to national politics anymore to guess what the probability is, but I doubt it is 100%.

  7. Dave Morris says:

    Honestly, I am surprised at how well-informed and reasonable this editorial is. Too often even advocates of climate legislation focus on the short-term price of regulating carbon and fail to point out the vast future costs we will avoid by strong action now. USA Today did it (mostly) right!

  8. Richard Pauli says:

    Keep in mind this is primarily a human plan to address an economic problem — it only tangentially faces GHGs in the biosphere.

    We are going to injure ourselves with all this back slapping and self praise.

  9. Ken Johnson says:

    “The only sure way to move from traditional fuels to a greener mix anytime soon is to begin making it more expensive to continue on the current path …” — or by making it less expensive to go off the current path. It would be much easier to give new, renewable sources a 10-cent-per-kWh subsidy than to try to impose a 10-cent-per-kWh carbon fee on all existing fossil-fuel sources, but the marginal incentive for energy decarbonization would be the same in either case.

    “The simplest solution would be a gradually rising tax on carbon-based fuels.” Not if tax proponents are more concerned about “making polluters pay” than making polluters stop polluting. The tax-and-dividend proposals that are being pushed would be no more politically palatable than Obama’s original “cap-and-dividend” proposal in his 2009 Budget Plan, which was a political non-starter.

    “Further, a tax wouldn’t set a hard limit on greenhouse gas emissions.” But neither would it set a hard limit on emission reductions, which is what cap-and-trade generally does. Well, not quite. The House cap-and-trade bill includes an escalating price floor, which could motivate emission reductions beyond the cap if prices hit the floor. Combine that with a hard price ceiling; split the difference and make the floor equal to the ceiling; and voila! — you’ve got a carbon tax, with free allocation! And trading! And banking! And offsets!

    [Hmmm … I’m not quite sure how that would work out. Trading and banking and offsets are supposed to lower prices over the long term. But the price floor is supposed to keep prices from going lower …]

  10. pete best says:

    Its not tru that Europe has cut its emissions by 5% below 1990 levels across the entire EU. Anyone can take the EU12/EU15 etc and tell us a crock regarding it but the reality is that the EU-27 (the real europe) has not cut emissions but increased them. In fact the world has increased emissions by 28% since year 2000.

    The only way that we are going to effectively tackle emissions is make carbon intensive energy sources more expensive. Either they get more expensive all by themselves due to their scarcity (peak oil etc) or we impose price hikes via a carbon tax or some other viable reason. Personally peak oil is the most likely method but that only opens up the gateway to more carbon intensive oils and CTL projects.

    We could of course all come up with a strategy but thats not how the free market economy works now is it. Nah – in the USA that will smack of state interference which millions seem to hate big time.

  11. Stephan says:

    We have to start somewhere and although it is expensive, the costs of not acting are even a lot higher, according to numerous scientific reports. Therefore, the sooner we act, the better. Environmentally and economically.

    For more info on the environment, have a look at this Green News.