Burning methane gas is a relatively clean way of generating power compared to other fossil fuel options. But directly releasing methane gas into the atmosphere is a climate catastrophe. Methane packs far more greenhouse punch per unit than does the better known carbon dioxide. Thus, as Andrew Revkin and Clifford Kraus write in The New York Times plugging various kinds of leaks in our infrastructure for storing and transportation methane is a highly effective way of mitigating climate change. What’s interesting, as they also observe, is that in many cases this isn’t just cost-effective, it directly saves money. The cost of the leaks, in other words, is higher than the cost of plugging them.
In addition to illustrating the specific point, that kind of thing highlights the efficacy of so-called “complementary policies” alongside a hoped-for basic mechanism of putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution. In a kind of black box rational agent model, the price mechanism alone should provide all the incentive people need. In practice, agents with a limited amount of time and attention can often find themselves neglecting small problems with large cumulative impact. Methane leakage is a striking example, but home insulation is probably a more broadly applicable one. Normal people simply don’t take the time to do a cost-benefit analysis on investing in better-insulating their homes and the problem of attenuated attention to this issue gets even worse when you consider things like rental apartments and office space. Under the circumstances it makes a lot of sense to try to push the level of evaluation up to a more macro scale and then hand down new building codes and direct financial incentives for retrofitting. Over the long term, there’s no substitute for carbon pricing to create incentives for both efficiency, innovation, and investment in existing clean energy technology. But in the short-term, our best bet is almost certainly the efficiency-enhancing properties of these kind of complementary policies.
At any rate, today is Blog Action Day and the issue is climate change. Tell your friends! When people look back one or two hundred years from now on American politics in the early 21st century, they’re probably not going to care about the ups-and-downs of health care policy or derivatives regulatives. They are going to care about what we did or didn’t do to forestall an ecological catastrophe.