Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Backed into a Corner

A new city means a new daily newspaper, and my first local Washington Post (free registration required) greeted me with three stories relevant to the themes of this blog. In the first, it seems Senator Kerry has called for concrete and measurable (2.5 million barrels per day by 2015) steps towards "energy independence", but has alas tied this to increasing use of fuel ethanol, which in this timeframe must come largely from corn. On the same page, we see further warnings of impending, abrupt climate change, heralded by the rapid melting of tropical-latitude glaciers. Either of these items merits an entire posting, but the news that caught my interest was the agreement by the Supreme Court to hear a case in which a group of states and municipalities is suing the federal government to have carbon dioxide defined as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. While I sympathize with the motives behind this case, finding in favor of the states here would be a grave error. It would raise the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and thus limit the impact of long-term mitigation efforts.

I know this probably sounds like more oil-mentality obstructionism, but it goes to the heart of whether we can actually reduce emissions by enough to avert irreversible and deleterious global warming. Reducing emissions at their source, i.e. from automobile tailpipes and factory and power plant smokestacks, will have to be done to some degree, but these reductions are among the costliest available to us. That's because carbon dioxide is not the result of fuel impurities, as are most of the pollutants we've spent the last three decades bringing under control. Rather, it--along with water--is the principal combustion product of all hydrocarbons. So we're not dealing with the consequences of something that is only present at the level of parts per million or even a few percent, but of 100% of the fuel involved. And that doesn't even get into the chemistry involved in separating and capturing CO2, and disposing of it somewhere other than the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, this is exactly where a victory by the states in this case will take us, down the path of trying to reduce CO2 emissions in the same way we've reduced sulfur dioxide and other true pollutants. If they are successful and CO2 becomes a pollutant, it won't just mean higher fuel prices. It will mean much higher prices for everying that includes energy in its manufacture or provision, up to and including the cable- and phone-based ISPs that enable you to read my comments. We'd be infinitely better off setting a cap on emissions and letting the market allocate where to achieve the reductions, particularly given the relative abundance of reductions available from agriculture, forestry and other non-industrial, or at least non-combustion-process, offsets.

So why are the states even going down this path? I can't be the only one who sees the pitfalls of this approach. It all comes back to the reticence of the federal government to address climate change on more than a voluntary basis. If the US had instituted something like the emissions trading scheme that our negotiators persuaded the EU to accept as part of Kyoto, we wouldn't now face the prospect of a Supreme Court ruling that could either dramatically increase the cost of cutting emissions, or set back the cause of US action on climate change by years.

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