Saturday, December 6, 2008

The heating climate around the, uh, heating climate

Back at this blog's first post, and in a few others, I've pointed out schisms in the conservation-environmental community. Now, the purpose of highlighting all the breaks in ideas, directions, and actions within our community is not to destroy us, nor is it to sell (you'll notice at this website that I'm not selling anything); the purpose is to illuminate the ethical reasons behind our positions and decisions, and to therefore make us stronger. If we can see where we disagree, we can, hopefully, weed out the bad ideas while increasing tolerances for each others' divergent views. At the same time, we can hopefully strengthen our defense of the wild. The ultimate goal here, then, is greater protection, and I follow a mantra when it comes to that goal, one I learned as a park interpreter: Through education, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.

With that in mind, let's turn to a a major conflict within the community, over how to curb carbon emissions. Last week in, of all places, Washington D.C., this conflict came to a head when a number of environmental justice groups took over the D.C. office of Environmental Defense (article here). Right now, there are two competing views on how to begin curbing carbon emissions, a "carbon tax", or cap, and the creation of a carbon market with caps, or "cap & trade."

This disagreement is primarily between the traditional environmental groups and the environmental justice groups. The former has, for the most part, come down in favor of a market, and the latter in favor of a cap with no market. Personally, I'm on the fence, and so I feel I can adequately provide the arguments for and against both concepts.

First, a quick description of cap & trade: Most simply put, it is the creation of a market for the sale of carbon and other greenhouse gasses (GHG's). Really, though, let's start with the goal, to cut GHG emissions from as many major sources as we can. Right now, people emit GHG's into the atmosphere willy-nilly, as a byproduct of combustion, and nobody wants to own these emissions. As you probably remember from your high school econ. class, all markets require scarcity, demand, and supply. Government creates the demand & scarcity by capping the total amount of GHG's allowed per year below current emissions, and then allowing the GHG's below the capped amount to be traded among emitters (hence the term 'allowances'). Over time, it is expected that government will continue lowering the amount of GHG's being traded, either by lowering the cap, or by buying up allowances in the market, effectively removing them from play. Being a market, it quickly gets more complicated from there, but that is the basic model.

Proponents of cap & trade argue that effective markets have been created to deal with other pollutants, notably SO2 (an acid rain component). They argue that the funds created through an initial sale of allowances (to kick-start the market) can be used by the government to mitigate climate change effects on areas that are hardest hit by climate change and/or the market (say, poor communities, habitat, the state of Florida). They also argue that, since CO2 is not a pollutant that hurts people locally, but is instead a global problem, then it doesn't matter where it gets capped, and so there will be no direct local pollution problem to worry about. Last, they argue that by allowing the market to function on a larger scale, then economies of scale, innovations, and money will drive down GHG emissions, while encouraging corporate buy-in, rather than causing foot-dragging and litigation to slow down emissions cuts.

Opponents argue that contrived markets are easy to game, that the market won't work quickly enough to actually curb GHG's, that compromises with industries for a market will probably exclude the initial sale of allowances, and that the market will affect poor communities the most in a number of ways. This last is the biggest concern of EJ groups, because companies with the worst pollution records operate in their communities, and the co-benefits of having to curb GHG emissions will almost certainly also cut other, more dangerous local emissions. For example, if you cut your CO2 emissions, you also usually cut your ozone emissions, and ozone is a cause of asthma attacks. 1 in 5 children in San Joaquin Valley have asthma, so you can see that communities in SJ Valley have a high stake in seeing these emissions cuts be local.

Instead, opponents argue for an across-the-board cap on carbon emissions through a GHG tax. Each emitter will have to account for their emissions, and if they run over their cap, then they must pay a cost-prohibitive tax for additional carbon. This would require all sources to account for and cut emissions.

Of course, major corporations would prefer nothing, but that is long gone, so they are pushing hard for a cap & trade market with free allowances to start, and to include many offsets, which are carbon trapping mechanisms, like forests, in their GHG totals. So, for example, a company may purchase some allowances, purchase some offssets, and cut whatever is left.

The legal grenade thrown into this? Last year, courts ordered the EPA to regulate carbon as a pollutant.

The incoming Obama Administration has a lot to work on.

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