Four Climate Change Policy Ideas for the Next President

Congratulations! We are finally out of this election cycle and all the negative ads. And no matter who the winner is, I hope that we can all come together to build a stronger economy and a healthier society. While we wait for the mudslinging over the fiscal cliff to begin, here are the top four recommendations on climate change policy for the incoming (or returning) president as stated in Businessweek.

1) Put a price on carbon. I alluded to this in a previous post called Carbon Emission where we discuss the differences between a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade policy. Businessweek says that “A $20-per-ton carbon price—collected as a tax or by auctioning carbon allowances—would raise on the order of $100 billion per year while creating powerful economic incentives to curb pollution in the most cost-effective manner (and develop new technologies to do so). A carbon price is also an ideal way to help address the coming “fiscal cliff”: Using some of the revenue to pay for lower taxes on labor or capital would provide a double dividend by reducing distortions in our tax system. For that reason, a carbon price enjoys broad support from economists across the political spectrum, from N. Gregory Mankiw, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Arthur Laffer on the Right, to Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jeffrey Sachs on the Left.”

2) Cut Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases. CO2 is obviously the biggest contributor to global warming, accounting for over 80% of GHG’s, but it is not the most potent. Other GHG’s such as Methane, Nitrous Oxide, and other flourinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride are numerous time more potent warmers than CO2.  I wrote a paper on this earlier this year and will post it later this month.  Needless to say, focusing attention on these High Global Warming Potential gases may do more in the short-term to curb warming and create some international “good will” for tackling the CO2 problem. 

3) Promote Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency.  The administration should further the transition to renewable energy sources by removing subsidies for fossil fuels and encouraging smarter subsidies for clean energy.  I wrote extensively on this subject here.  In short, current subsidies to fossil fuels should be removed and invested into R&D.  The current subsidies in place for renewable energy promote widespread deployment of these technologies, but do nothing to increase their output and reduce their cost.  A better subsidy policy would promote increases in efficiency or reductions in cost in order to make these technologies competitive with cheap and abundant natural gas.  After all, the taxpayer wants to see results from their money.

4) Use the Clean Air Act.  Finally, the new administration should take full advantage of the Clean Air Act that sets new vehicle mileage standards, sets limits on pollution from industrial sources, and sets more protective standards for air quality.  “The next administration should build on these steps by setting carbon-pollution emission standards for stationary sources, including new and existing power plants. In doing so, the EPA can draw on a proud tradition, dating back to the Reagan administration, of making clean-air rules as economically efficient and flexible as possible—for example, by allowing averaging and trading so companies can meet standards on a fleet-wide basis rather than at each facility individually. The EPA should also design the carbon standards in a way that rewards states that implement their own rigorous programs—such as the innovative cap-and-trade approaches already in use in the Northeast and getting under way in California.”

There you have it.  In only a few hours from now we will know the next leader of the United States of America.  Now if the time for action on climate change.  The four steps outlined above are only the beginning, but they will help to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, improve the health of our citizens (and the other 6.7 billion citizen of this planet), and even provide opportunities for the growth of new industries.  This is a tall order, but we have never backed down from a challenge before, why start now?

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Methane: The Other Greenhouse Gas

I woke up this morning to an interesting article on NBCnews.com that mentioned a new study that shows that the methane hydrates located off the East coast are destabilizing at an alarming rate.  So what does this mean?  Well, basically, it appears that this is caused by a change in the Gulf Stream, or the natural convection cycle where warm waters are transported north and east from Florida towards the Arctic and Europe where the water is cooled and begins its southern journey back down.  However, climate change inspired temperature changes are throwing off the natural cycle and destabilizing the methane hydrates on the sea floor.

Why should we care?  Aside from the fact that the Gulf Stream is responsible for the weather patters on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the nutrients in the water that sustain our fish, this new discovery represents a something of a turning point in climate change.  Methane, or (CH4) to all my chemistry nerds out there, is a potent greenhouse gas that currently accounts for 16% of GHG emissions.  While less abundant than carbon dioxide, methane is 23x more potent than CO2.  The fear is that we have now reached a tipping point where increased global temps actually bring on unwanted effects of their own.  And believe it or not, we have a lot of methane hidden in a frozen state in the permafrost on our northern locations. 

I mention this study not to be an alarmist (well, maybe), but because I believe that many of us think that climate change will be easy to solve once all parties come together to take action.  This is not true.  It is going to take plenty of work to solve this problem.  There is definitely a tipping point where the Earth enters into a reinforcing cycle of warming – the question is: did we just pass it?  If not, can we take corrective action before we reach that point.