Getting to Clean

As the New York Times reports today in an editorial, the decision of Senators Kerry and Boxer to put off introduction of their climate bill until the end of the month is likely to push Congressional action on climate change that much further into the future.  With the fate of health care legislation in doubt, there is little appetite for moving climate change legislation to the floor.  However, as the Times also points out, that does not mean all is lost.  The EPA is moving forward on rules to regulate carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.  Perhaps even more importantly, however, the Senate has already passed legislation to create a renewable electricity standard.  Indeed both the Senate and House have passed numerous provisions--that while not as dramatic as putting a price on carbon--attack the climate problem in important ways.

The current situation highlights the fact that while putting a price on carbon through a cap and trade system or carbon tax--as France just announced it will do next year--has achieved symbolic status as a litmus test for seriously addressing climate problem, it is only one policy tool.  Indeed, as the EU's experience with cap and trade (and carbon taxes in Finland, Sweden and Denmark) shows, there is no silver bullet for reducing emissions.  There are policies.  And all of these policies ultimately must accomplish the same thing: accelerate the development and use of new, cleaner technologies.

Assuming continuing growth of human civilization, only new low emissions technologies that replace carbon intensive ones can sustain growth without warming the planet.  Conservation--getting by with less--is helpful in the short term.  So is reforestation.  Over the long term, however, as population grows and living standards rise, forests will be cut and emmissions rise, leaving new technologies as the only long term answer. 

The appeal of putting a price on carbon is that by internalizing the social costs of emissions, it lets the market select the best way to reduce them.  The difficulty, as the EU has discovered, is that allocating the right to pollute or even crafting a fair and harmonized carbon tax is an inherently political process that provides a golden opportunity to free ride on the reductions of others.  Since climate change is something taking place over decades, governments have an even greater opportunity than usual to postpone pain.  To date, Europe's success in reducing emissions through cap and trade has been real but modest and its efforts offset by exploding emissions from India and China. 

This does not mean that cap and trade is not a good idea: only that is just one tool in the shed.  Which brings us to alternative approaches. 

Europe has had success with a feed in tarriff to encourage deployment of renewable energy.  The US equivalent of tax credits has been useful though less transformative.  A renewable electricity standard such as that in the EU and those already passed in separate bills in the House and Senate will also help replace carbon intensive energy with renewable energy. 
However, there is an additional problem.  While building is going green--most new large commercial buildings are seeking Leeds certification, power generation is changing far more slowly.  The reason is its regulated status.  While the telecom industry is now turning over its entire network infrastructure every five years at a cost of billions and consumer businesses must continually invest in new products and technologies to stay in place, heavily regulated power utilities face no real competition and, instead, major barriers to innovation.

True, regulated utilities normally earn a guaranteed rate of return on investment which, all things being equal, should incent them to make new investments.  However, they also require the approval of regulators whose mission, above all, is to contain costs to consumers.  A consumer preference for renewable energy rarely expresses itself in the market since consumers don't get to choose their source of power. In  short, the structure of the utility industry is currently blocking the renewable revolution.

I support prompt action on cap and trade as one tool to address the climate problem. However, as valuable as it is, it is one tool of many.  Regardless of how quickly this tool becomes available, it is important to take all of the other steps available to accelerate investments in clean technologies.