Thursday, September 18, 2014
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A Better Way to Fight Climate Change

NEW YORK – Of all major world regions, Europe has worked the hardest to implement policies aimed at countering human-caused climate change. Yet the cornerstone of Europe’s approach – a continent-wide emissions trading system for the greenhouse gases that cause climate change – is in trouble. That experience suggests a better strategy for both Europe and the rest of the world.

The basic story of human-caused climate change is becoming clearer to the global public. Several gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, warm the planet as their concentrations in the atmosphere increase. As the world economy grows, so do emissions of these gases, accelerating the pace of human-caused climate change.

The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. Most CO2 emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – for energy, global consumption of which is rising as the world economy grows. As a result, we are on a path to very dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Twenty years ago, the world agreed to reduce sharply emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, but little progress has been made. Instead, the rapid growth of the emerging economies, especially coal-burning China, has caused global CO2 emissions to soar.

Dangerous changes in climate have already begun. If the world continues on its current trajectory, global temperatures will eventually rise by several degrees centigrade, causing higher sea levels, mega-storms, severe heat waves, massive crop failures, extreme droughts, heavy flooding, and a sharp loss of biodiversity.

Yet changing the world’s energy system is a daunting challenge, because fossil fuels are so deeply embedded in the workings of the global economy. Oil provides the main fuel for transportation worldwide. Coal and gas are burned in huge and growing amounts to produce electricity and to provide energy for industry. How, then, can we sustain worldwide economic progress while cutting back sharply on carbon emissions?

There are essentially two solutions, but neither has been deployed on a large scale. The first is to shift massively from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, especially wind power and solar power. Some countries will also continue to use nuclear power. (Hydroelectric power generation emits no CO2, but there are only a few remaining places in the world where it can be expanded without major environmental or social costs.)

The second solution is to capture CO2 emissions for storage underground. But this technology, called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), is not yet proven on a large scale. One approach is to capture the CO2 at the power plant as the coal or gas is burned. Another is to capture it directly from the air using specially designed chemical processes. Either way, CCS will require significant investment in further research and development before it becomes a viable technology.

The big problem is time. If we had a century to change the world’s energy system, we could feel reasonably secure. Yet we must complete most of the transformation to low-carbon energy by mid-century. This is extraordinarily difficult given the long transition period needed to overhaul the world’s energy infrastructure, including not only power plants, transmission lines, and transport systems, but also homes and commercial buildings.

Few economic regions have made much progress in this transformation. In fact, the United States is now investing heavily in natural gas without recognizing or caring that its shale-gas boom, based on new hydraulic-fracturing technology, is likely to make matters worse.

Even if the US economy shifts from coal to natural gas, America’s coal will probably be exported for use elsewhere in the world. In any event, natural gas, though somewhat less carbon-intensive than coal, is a fossil fuel; burning it will cause unacceptable climate damage.

Only Europe has tried to make a serious shift away from carbon emissions, creating a system that requires each industrial emitter to obtain a permit for each ton of CO2 emissions. Because these permits trade at a market price, companies have an incentive to reduce their emissions, thereby requiring them to buy fewer permits or enabling them to sell excess permits for a profit.

The problem is that the permits’ market price has plummeted in the midst of Europe’s economic slowdown. Permits that used to sell for more than $30 per ton before the crisis now trade for under $10. At this low price, companies have little incentive to cut back on their CO2 emissions – and little faith that a market-based incentive will return. As a result, much of European industry continues on a business-as-usual energy path, even as Europe tries to lead the world in this transformation.

But there is a much better strategy than tradable permits. Each region of the world should introduce a tax on CO2 emissions that starts low today and increases gradually and predictably in the future.

Part of the tax revenue should be channeled into subsidies for new low-carbon energy sources like wind and solar, and to cover the costs of developing CCS. These subsidies could start fairly high and decline gradually over time, as the tax on CO2 emissions rises and the costs of new energy technologies fall with more experience and innovation.

With a long-term and predictable carbon tax and subsidy system, the world would move systematically toward low-carbon energy, greater energy efficiency, and CCS. Time is short. The need for all major world regions to adopt practical and far-sighted energy policies is more urgent than ever.

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  1. CommentedLeo Arouet

    Definitivamente, hoy el mundo es más consciente de los peligros que conllevan el cambio climático y son están más seguros de la información acerca de él.

    Los gobiernos deben actuar rápidamente para evitar que el proceso llegue a una línea de no retorno. Su artículo ayuda mucho en ese sentido, a iniciar el debate y poner énfasis e importancia sobre el cambio climático.

  2. CommentedRonald Abate

    Dr. Sachs, I recommend you take occasional trips out of your university echo chamber and into the real world. A lot is happening out there. The first link will take you to the website of a group of "retired" scientists and engineers who were either at NASA or worked with NASA on the Apollo program. They have formed this working group to look into the claim that anthropogenic global warming will prove to be catastrophic ("CAGW"). They have enlisted advisors on both sides of this debate. What I really like about this group is they have no ax to grind. They are all retired so they no longer have to keep their mouth shut.

    www.therightclimatestuff.com/index.html

    The next website provides a convenient place to find all the scientific studies that are being conducted all over the world pertaining to the impact on plants from higher levels of CO2, studies on the global extent of the Medieval Warm Period when temperatures were as high or higher than today.

    www.co2science.org/

    At the next website you will find an open letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggesting that the issue of CAGW be debated in an open forum by experts on both sides. It is the opinion of the signers of this letter, all of whom are men with scientific credentials like Freeman Dyson of Princeton and Richard Lindzen of MIT, that there is no consensus regarding CAGW.

    www.cbc.ca/news/background/harper_conservatives/pdf/lettertoharper2.pdf

    Anthony Watts, a CA meteorologist host an award winning science website. He posts research reports and reviews of research reports that one will not find in the MSM. Watts was the person who blew they whistle on the poor quality of the temperature data used to claim temperatures were out-of-control. Even Jim Hansan of NASA fame admits that global temperatures have not risen for approximately a decade.

    www.wattsupwiththat.com/

    Dr. Judith Curry from Georgia Tech hosts a climate website Climate Etc. It's her opinion that the climate is hugely complex and chaotic, and that there are huge uncertainties regarding what influences the climate.

    www.judithcurry.com



  3. CommentedJoe Bongiovanni

    Thanks so much for coming around to a mechanism with an economic drive train that can actually be put to work the needed policy prescriptions for achieving a proper global carbon balance.
    The neoliberal financial derivative trading approach (C&T) embraced by many environmental groups and leaders was ill-advised at conception. It lived on in a belief system that 'market- makers' ruled the world, and that no option could prevail outside their market paradigm.
    A carbon tax has long been the correct way to ENSURE an adequate flow of funds to finance the technology transfer that is needed, now more than ever.
    Thanks for the courage that this position represents.

  4. CommentedJoshua Ioji Konov

    Strategies for Sustainability of Environmental & Resources Efficiency
    Joshua Ioji Konov
    October 4, 2012
    Chicago IL, the USA
    Joshua.konov@gmail.com
    Abstract
    The best global model for expanding Alternative Energies and Environmental Protection is through using market equilibrium, whereas governmental subsidies and fiscal stimulus to be just supplementary. Accelerated Globalization and rising Productivity’s Market equilibrium depend on matching consumption demand and supply through price deleveraging . Hence is achievable in a more fair market competition only by changing market (i.e. economic) agents: from presently used trickle-down economics that stimulate big business and big investors to a more market related economics (Marketism) that would stimulate Small & Medium Businesses and Investors (SME&I) boost business activities and related employment, fiscal reserves and over all market utilized consumption.

  5. CommentedJannie Muller

    Really ? Jeffrey

    With all do respect I have no idea which audience you want to please.

    "Part" of the tax, the tax in the first place wasn't introduced by many countries as a measure to counter CO2 production. Carbon tax was issued because it's a mean to increase tax for governments financial shortcomings in other area, there are tons of material on the web pointing this out.

    Not some, but ALL of this should only be spend on building cleaner solutions, the problem here is that the state gets the money to build a solution yet in very few countries the state still operate energy, it's the private sector. So what is happening with the tax money then ??

    You will not be able to move to cleaner carbon free systems whether it's transport or production while GM (General motors etc.) own major stakes in fossil fuel production.

    The squander of the CO2 is the cause behind the fall of the price of these incentives. Since there is no tangible factor to correctly tax CO2 emissions, again, the measure by which to do so would be the energy bill and the energy bill goes to the company owned and operator by private sector yet the tax measure is created by the state with inaccurate measures.

    Even with proper incentives a CO2 producing company would simply push the workers hard to accommodate for the shortfall due to increase expenditure alternatively it would blame government for laying them off. This will also have a major issue for manufacturing which is already on the brink of collapse.

    It's sheer willpower and greed that is preventing green solutions, contrary to what blue ties may say , we are not in this position due to a lack of creative ideas or general knowledge about the subject, this has been on the cards probably before both of us were around.

    We drive inefficient cars that very seldom transport their full capacity and as long as these types of systems are sold by their grandeur the problem will persist.

    What you can think about is declaring fossil fuels and naturals resources common property owned by citizens of earth. Devalue it completely. Then you will see change.
    Not possible you say ?

    The same oil fields running under Middle Eastern countries, who owns it ? The person with the well ? It's sucking from the same teat of mother nature yet the proceeds goes to a few. I really appreciate your idea, but you are circumventing the real issue.


  6. Commentedjimmy rousseau

    Mid century? If only we had that much time. The window for stopping extremely costly, tragic disruptive change has passed. Now we must act to stop it from going catastrophic or cataclysmic.

  7. CommentedSteven Tolliver

    While only directly available to coastal areas, the force of the tides is continual and does not deminish when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining. Much more development ought be carried out of this perpetual energy source.

  8. CommentedHenry TIDY

    There are also two other solutions, all too often looked over, because we are fixated by technological solutions. Firstly we need to promote energy efficiency, for example by massively insulating our buildings, or moving away from inefficient individual transport, namely the car. And secondly, reducing our energy needs - for example re-localising our production. Yes, this flies in the face of globalisation and the economic models that have been promoted these past decades, but if we want to fight climate change, we have to reduce the massive use of transport that underlies our current industrial production systems.

  9. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    CO2 permits are trading at Euro 4 per ton of CO2 and the system has failed to provide any incentive in Europe. The carbon tax on the other hand would not help businesses to innovate in the area of non-fossil fuel technologies unless there is a channel which would move capital to where the innovation is supposed to play the steering role. Mis-allocation of capital and absence of avenues that would channelize such that the imbalances are removed is not clearly coming out as public-private partnerships are being envisaged. The end result is more of the same, lack of initiative in the innovation area, which is not making wind and solar power make quantum leap in terms of cost and efficiency. To make matters worse, the shale gas boom has caught on as capital gets allocated there.

  10. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    We simply cannot view climate change, whether human induced or not in isolation.
    Global world means that all the systems, everything we do, all elements of our lives are interconnected, influencing each other on multiple levels.
    We cannot simply choose a thread we want to examine and start changing it without taking the whole system into consideration.
    If we truly want to solve any element of the global crisis, that is involving the whole modern human system, we need to look at the whole system in totality.
    The basic principles are the following:
    - Humanity lives in a vast natural ecosystem, we are part of this system, not above it.
    - The natural system is based on natural laws, which means those are unbending, strict rules we cannot debate, argue with, just like the law of gravity.
    - Humanity, driven by the unique human ego left the natural path, starting to believe in human uniqueness, us being independent of the natural system.
    - By now it is becoming clear it has always been a misunderstanding, we cannot exist outside of the system (our whole being, biology, psyche is built on the same foundations), and the more we try to influence it, changing it to serve our own self centered needs, desires, which desires have long separated from any natural foundations, the more damage we cause and threaten our own existence, like cancer.
    - To a certain limit new findings, inventions improved our lives, but today we went far beyond that limit, today we invent things that have no natural foundations (because of the excessive consumer system we push for profit), and we try to justify these inventions, seeing how we could use them, but they have no use in the natural system as they have no connection to it. We see multiple applications of this concept in medicine, food supply, culture, fashion, and many other parts of life, where we cause extreme damage by stubbornly trying to justify the use of these products, just because "we invented them".
    - The financial crisis, economical crisis, environmental threat and all the other elements of the global crisis are simply different symptoms of the root cause, humanity's dissociation from the natural system.

    In summary the only solution is a total stop of our present attitude and lifestyle, re-evaluation ourselves and the system we live in, this time examining the natural system not in order to exploit it, but to understand how we can adapt to it, and finally the total adaptation between humanity and the natural system.
    The system is not going to change, its laws will stand. Only we can change ourselves.
    This self examination and self-change will give us the true human level, the conscious being that is capable of controlling itself above instincts and selfish desires, as if from an outside observer position, always tuning the global human society to the natural system, thus becoming partners with it.
    In such a harmony nobody would need to worry about emission, recycling, or even overspending, social imbalance or wars, it would be effortless, automatic, like always "sensing what is right or what is wrong".

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