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Environmental & Energy Insights
Environmental & Energy Insights

Carbon taxes, political sausage, and jobs.

Late last week, the French Constitutional Council blocked Sarkozy’s proposed carbon tax. The reason given was that the levy gave too many exemptions to industry and unfairly taxed the cost of motor fuels and household heating. Proponents of a carbon tax should look carefully at this recent result in France – especially at the widespread exemptions earned by major emitters – before claiming that carbon taxes are obviously superior to cap-and-trade. Getting a real carbon tax that is more effective than a real cap-and-trade is not as easy as proponents would have you believe. Too often, the comparison is made between a theoretical carbon tax and a cap-and-trade proposal that has been through the political sausage maker.

All that being said, it might well be that the US is nearing a crossroads when it comes to climate policy. On the one hand, it appears less and less likely that 60 votes can be had for a cap-and-trade bill in the US Senate (for this, see the comment in the above article regarding Sarkozy’s inability to enact domestic law to live up to his international promises. On the other hand, the need to address the jobs situation is becoming a front-burner issue.

Could a carbon tax including a double-dividend be part of the solution to something that Congress actually cares about?

Just imagine a $25 per ton carbon tax. Computed General Equilibrium (CGE) models of the US economy estimate that this is roughly what would be required to get to Obama’s promised 17% cut in US emissions. AEI estimates that using the revenue to reduce payroll taxes would allow a cut of 15% in the payroll tax (FICA) while also being distributionally neutral. They claim that the supply of labor is inelastic so that this wouldn’t necessarily lead to higher employment. But this ignores the fact that the FICA is paid jointly by employers and employees. Presumably, giving half of the FICA cut to employers would lower the marginal cost of adding additional labor to production processes, and lead to higher net levels of employment in the US at no net cost to the Treasury. That’s something that deficit hawks, politicians concerned about unemployment in their district (isn’t that all politicians right now?), and environmentalists could get excited about.

Added bonus – you can explain it to your constituents in 30 seconds or less – try doing that with cap-and-trade.

The key development of week 2 at the COP – no more BAU at the UNFCCC

It seems that the UN is waking up to the fact that at least for the UNFCCC, if not for global emissions of GHGs, BAU is no longer an acceptable option.

Many have focussed on the pros and cons of the Copenhagen Accord in evaluating whether the recently concluded COP was a success (or not).  My view is that the more important contribution of week two of COP 15 may turn out to be a major revision of the UNFCCC negotiation process.  Because rules of procedure have never been adopted by the UNFCCC, all decisions must be made by consensus.

That lack of procedure led, at the most recent COP, to the ability of a small group of nations to block adoption of the Copenhagen Accord, much to the chagrin of the major emitters who negotiated the agreement. The problems with getting 192 nations to agree to anything substantial are legion, especially when only a small number of countries must bear the vast majority of the up-front costs of implementing decisions made by all 192 (for more on this, see writing by Dan Bodansky on represntation without taxation at the UNFCCC in his article Bonn Voyage: Kyoto’s Uncertain Revival).  This has led to recent moves on the part of the United States via the Major Economies Forum (MEF) to create alternative venues for moving forward on climate and energy issues. The MEF is perhaps the one area of the climate change debate where the previous administration and the current one agree on how to proceed.

Now, even Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged that the UNFCCC process needs reform. Without reform, the UN process seems more and more likely to be dethroned as the locus of international diplomacy on climate change. There are good reasons to stay within the UNFCCC process, if decisionmaking can be reformed to be both streamlined and to better reflect the interests of those who must do something if dangerous climate change is to be averted.

Most of the nations, including the US, that have been pushing alternative fora for discusison of climate change would likely be happier within a UN process, if it were both workable and perceived as fair. Inducing these countries to stick with the UNFCCC as they move forward with international commitments on climate change also has the tremendous benefit of giving those countries that will bear the long-term costs of climate change a say, albeit a smaller one than in past, in the outcome. The biggest problem with the MEF approach is that it fundamentally disenfranchises those with the most to lose from climate change in the decisions about how much effort to expend on avoiding it.

Time to get back to work on climate – real action begins at home

With the Copenhagen Accord “noted” by the UNFCCC, and many full planes departed from the only airport in the world (to my knowledge) with teak flooring – not to mention gorgeous mid-century modern furniture and lighting – the time for real work on climate change begins again.

It had been obvious for some time that even if a legally binding agreement were inked in Copenhagen, it would consist largely of a compilation of the unilateral offers of major economies. We didn’t exactly get that out of COP 15, but we did get something that looks roughly like it – albeit with objections from many developing countries and without language that “binds” countries to compliance with its requirements (but see Canadian and Australian non-compliance with another legally binding agreement – the Kyoto Protocol).

Now it’s time for those of us in the United States (and Australia too) to get back to the real work of putting our money where our mouth is. It’s all well and good for our government to decry the reluctance of China to submit to international monitoring and verification of its GHG mitigation accomplishments. But for these objections to have any credence at all, we have to actually do something comprehensive ourselves.

Right now, we have a bit of a credibility problem on this issue, our charismatic President’s pronouncements not withstanding. Hopefully, the Senate democrats’ now demonstrated ability to cobble together 60 votes on major legislation is a harbinger of things to come for climate legislation.

In any case, it was a necessary political precondition for moving ahead on the Kerry-Graham process. Now all the Senate has to do is conclude its discussion on reform of the financial system before climate change comes to the top of the agenda, hopefully not too close to the November 2010 elections or moderate dems may feel too vulnerable to risk a “yes” vote.

The exercise of thinking through the US Senate agenda helps one to understand the Chinese skepticism of the US negotiating position at Copenhagen. Hopefully we will prove the doubts of our partners across the Pacific unfounded. No doubt that a little positive coverage on Fox wouldn’t hurt our chances.

Sea level rise and 550 ppm CO2

Yesterday, while COP-15 seemed to be spinning off the tracks, I spent the day at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. Don’t let the title mislead: this is likely the largest meeting of climate scientists each year. The meeting is truly enormous – this year more than 15,000 are attending. As a former member of the climate science community, I always try to go for a few of the days, to see old friends and learn about the latest science.

One study discussed yesterday in the aisles of the poster sessions struck me as especially relevant given the brouhaha over a leaked UN report showing that even if there is agreement in Copenhagen, pCO2 levels in the atmosphere will still top 550 ppm. The report argues that this concentration will lead to a 3°C rise in global average temperatures – much more than the 1.5 or 2° that many would like to achieve.

Back to the science: the last time that scientists have fairly solid evidence that the Earth was this warm was about 3 million years ago, during a period referred to as the Mid-Pliocene climate optimum. One longstanding question about this interval has been, how high was the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The best guesses have been somewhere between 400 and 600 ppm. But these estimates have been derived from single sites using proxies for CO2 concentration of very rough accuracy and precision. So uncertainty has remained about the relationship between pCO2 and temperature during this interval.

Yesterday at the meeting, I had the chance to talk to Mark Pagani of Yale and Christina Ravelo of UC Santa Cruz (full disclosure – Christina was my doctoral advisor) who have new work, to appear shortly in Nature Geosciences, that will apparently show, using more accurate and precise proxies, and a wide variety of sites distributed all over the globe, that pCO2 concentrations were approximately 400 ppm during this interval – the low end of previous estimates. This is of not that different than they are likely to be around 2020 (current levels are in the mid-380′s).

Why is this important? One reason is that associated with the Pliocene warmth was a pronounced increase in global sea levels – of between 5 and 30 meters. A warming of 3°C was apparently sufficient to melt most of the grounded ice on Greenland and a big piece of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The high end estimate requires substantial reduction in the size of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet as well. But let’s just take the low-end estimate. A 5 meter or 15 foot rise in sea level would fundamentally alter the distribution of human societies on the globe. It would also profoundly disrupting coastal ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine.

If it were to happen, this meltback of the world’s major ice sheets wouldn’t occur in lockstep with the temperature changes – ice sheets have enormous thermal inertia that slows their response to higher temperature. But it will likely happen. What the new work probably shows is that we, or more precisely our grand- and great grandchildren, are already committed to this level of disruption. 5 meters if we are likely – more if we aren’t. Sobering stuff as the other big meeting on climate change, happening in Denmark, may produce an insubstantial outcome.

More sobering news in the California water wars

Compelling video, Meg.  Those of us on this side of the Atlantic are feeling a bit down about the news reports from Copenhagen.  But things are not much cheerier here at home.

The bad news about California’s fresh water delivery system just got worse.  A new NASA report on groundwater overdraft in the Central Valley concludes that since 2003, the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Basins have lost more than 30 cubic kilometers of water, much of it due to groundwater pumping.  NASA describes a cubic kilometer as the equivalent of 400,000 Olympic-size pools.  Times 30.  That’s a lot of lost water.

The NASA report comes on the heels of the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy issued two weeks ago.  The climate report concludes, not surprisingly, that California will be forced to fundamentally alter its fresh water use and management practices in the face of climate change-induced impacts on the water delivery system.  The severely depleted status of our primary groundwater basins in the Central Valley makes that conclusion all the more daunting.

Regrettably, it appears that California’s recently inked “historic” $11 billion water deal missed an historic opportunity to address this part of the water supply problem.  The water package has minor provisions for groundwater monitoring by local agencies, but the locals are the ones who stood by and watched as the aquifers were drawn down in the first place.  It’s hard to believe we will see a whole lot of good information or better management from these quarters, at least without a whole lot more prodding.

We need to figure out how to manage the use — and overuse — of this largely unregulated shared resource.  And if the NASA report is right, we need to do it fast.

Climate Change and the Ocean – In Pictures

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Copenhagen, Denmark. As part of Oceans Day at COP15, the Center for Oceans Solutions teamed up with the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) to produce a six minute multimedia short entitled Oceans +2C. Oceans +2C uses the backdrop of stunning ocean photography to deliver a series of messages on the ocean in the face of climate change. The messages come from a collection of leading ocean scientists from Stanford University, MBARI and the Carnegie Institute for Science and are given in their own words. The film was launched at the Oceans Day reception, co-sponsored by the Center for Ocean Solutions and hosted by the Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts and Islands as part of their day long program dedicated to integrating the ocean into climate change policy. View Oceans +2C here:

As a partnership dedicated, in large part, to elevating the role of science in policy, the Center for Ocean Solutions came to COP15 to communicate the central role that the ocean plays in the earth’s climate, as well as the urgent need to consider it in climate-based decision-making. Our team of scientists, policy experts, students and communicators have been actively engaging the COP processes to highlight cutting-edge ocean-climate science and encouraging our world leaders to adopt this science into their policy framework. Amongst the tools used for this outreach, the Center published a fact sheet entitled The Oceans in a +2C Warmer World. The fact sheet was distributed via a week-long exhibit, at the European Environment Agency on Oceans Day and within press kits at various briefings held for journalists.

Oceans Rise as Kyoto is Sidelined

Green Turtle in South Florida.  Photo Courtesy Kim Mohlenhoff.

Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo courtesy Kim Mohlenhoff.

Copenhagen, Denmark. December 14 was Oceans Day at COP15! It was also the day negotiations broke down (again) over the whole issue of whether parties will agree to parallel commitments under Kyoto and new commitments binding all countries participating in COP15 (recall that US is not a party to Kyoto). So, several delegates from developing countries and small island states took solace in the relative calm of the all-day and in-to-the-evening science-to-policy-to-film and discussion oceans event at the European Environment Agency building in downtown Copenhagen.

One after another, delegates from the Solomon Islands, Monaco, Indonesia, South Africa, and Cape Verde reflected that the scientific presentations at Oceans Day were the best they’d ever seen. The Center for Ocean Solutions was represented by professors Rob Dunbar and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who gave two stunningly clear presentations on ocean acidification and climate change impacts on tropical marine systems and human communities. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the science isn’t getting through to the negotiating parties. In the words of Representative Gordon Darcy Lilo, Minister of Environment, Conservation and Meteorology of the Solomon Islands, “the science has not been persuasive so far — that is why negotiations have not gone well in Copenhagen.”

After such a great day of very sobering, albeit excellent, science presentations, this is a hard pill to swallow.

The message is clear: we have to do a better job of communicating and integrating science into policy decision making, which is exactly what the IPCC was and is designed to do. So, why are we at this point now and what can we do about it? The developing countries want and need their own scientific voice. Not imported scientists, but their own. Dr. Kwame Koranteng of the Fisheries Management and Conservation Service of the FAO/UN adamantly says developing countries need help with scientific capacity-building. We should be exchanging our graduate students and post docs and supporting science education in developing countries.

The Feds take on Marine Spatial Planning

Believe it or not, there actually is environmental news beyond Copenhagen.  Yesterday the Council on Environmental Quality took an important first step on the road to ocean governance reform.  The President’s Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force issued its Interim Framework for Effective Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning for 60-day public review and comment.  The idea of marine planning or zoning – an effort to separate incompatible uses of the ocean environment in order to protect ecological values and reduce user conflicts – has been bubbling up for some time among academics and state policymakers in places like Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Now the federal government has dipped its toe into the water in a significant way.

The concept of marine spatial planning (MSP) has been defined in as many different ways as there are people trying to define it.  The Interim Framework synthesizes many of these definitions into one broadly inclusive one: “a comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process, based on sound science, for analyzing current and anticipated uses of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes areas.”  CEQ’s hope is that MSP will provide better public policy, and a better public process, for making decisions about the use and protection of ocean resources.

Earlier this decade, two major state-of-the-ocean reports painted a pretty grim picture of the health of our marine resources and identified governance reform as a critical component for reversing course.  Yet little has happened on the national ocean policy front since then.  At both the federal and state levels, we continue to manage oceans largely on a single resource or single use basis.  All too often the result of such fragmented decisionmaking is user conflict and long-term, accumulating ecological degradation.  Death by a thousand cuts, or something like that.

MSP is an attempt to break out of our historic sector-by-sector approach to management of the marine public commons.  The theory is that MSP can help integrate decisions across agencies, resources, and uses.  But mere integration is not enough to protect ecological values; many resource atrocities have occurred under terrestrial planning regimes.  The marine spatial planning process must be based on what the best science is telling us about ecosystem function and resilience.  In essence, MSP provides one potentially promising way to implement the much-discussed, but still elusive concept of ecosystem-based management in the marine environment.  Whether this promise can be fulfilled, of course, remains to be seen.

There are many tricky issues to work through.  At what scale should planning proceed?  What institutional structures will facilitate effective interagency coordination?  How should planners interface with scientific data and technical experts?  How should stakeholder participation be structured?  What are the possible outcomes of the process?  How should the outcome be implemented?  By what metrics should its efficacy be measured?  Etc.

The Interim Framework only begins to answer these challenging questions.  It proposes the formation of regional planning bodies, organized at the scale of large marine ecosystems (e.g., the California current), to develop coastal and marine spatial plans consistent with a set of national objectives and regional priorities.  As envisioned in the Framework, MSP would not displace any agency’s current jurisdiction.  Each agency would continue to operate under its existing statutory authority, but ideally its actions would be governed by the principles and goals articulated in whatever plan is developed.

CEQ’s proposal is exactly what it says it is – a general framework.  It leaves many details undetermined and provides substantial flexibility to the new regional bodies to define the contours of any particular plan.  But at least it’s a start.  And it signals this Administration’s desire to catch up with the rest of us.

Keeping up with the latest negotiations versus the rumor mill

How can you keep up with the COP15 negotiations?

Thousands of journalists from every type of media outlet are on-site covering the proceedings, and the blogging and online broadcast productions are extensive. However, access to most negotiating rooms is restricted to negotiators, which is one reason rumors in the corridors can quickly become news stories. Other sources typically originate from a side events and press conferences organized by national delegations, NGO’s, and the UNFCCC Secretariat – all with different interests and angles.

To open access to the formal proceedings far and wide, the UNFCCC has made a major effort to webcast some of the major sessions live. The sessions that are webcast are open to observers, and they typically involve formalities that mask some of the more direct negotiations happening in informal sessions that are closed to observers. Nevertheless, I highly recommend tuning in to history this week:

http://cop15.meta-fusion.com/

Finally, IISD produces a summary of the many parallel channels of negotiation each day in a publication called Earth Negotiations Bulletin:

http://www.iisd.ca/climate/cop15/

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Clean Air Act – What’s Next?

Amid the frenzied run-up to Copenhagen, EPA announced its much awaited final “endangerment finding” under the Clean Air Act, paving the way for federal regulation of greenhouse gases.  And, of course, paving the way for new rounds of litigation.  Issued in response to the Supreme Court’s 2007 holding in Massachusetts v. EPA, the endangerment finding relates specifically to emissions from new motor vehicles.  Pursuant to section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act, EPA found that emissions of greenhouse gases from vehicles contribute to air pollution that endangers public health and welfare.  With this finding in hand, EPA will now move forward to finalize higher fuel economy standards for new cars and trucks, starting with model year 2012.

The endangerment finding is widely viewed as a strategic move designed to bring Congress to the table on climate change legislation.  In something of a game of chicken, EPA has for months warned that it will be compelled to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act if Congress doesn’t act.  The Administration’s hand was finally forced by the need for the U.S. to offer some modicum of progress heading into the COP15 negotiations.  Many believe that the Administration has upped the ante in a high stakes gambit to get a cap-and-trade bill passed this session, before the full weight of the endangerment finding makes itself felt in regulatory proposals.  But now that EPA has pulled the endangerment trigger, others argue that the pressure on Congress to act will actually dissipate.  Nervous conservative Democrats, this argument goes, now have an excuse not to move climate change legislation because EPA is addressing the issue. Perhaps as important, they have a ready scapegoat if public sentiment turns sour.  It’s hard to guess how the politics will play out.

But can we (and should we) put the genie back in the bottle?  A few days before the EPA announcement, two environmental groups filed a petition to establish national pollution limits for greenhouse gases under section 108(a) of the Clean Air Act.  Section 108(a) uses the same endangerment language as section 202(a), but triggers the regulation of stationary pollution sources rather than motor vehicles.  The petition asks EPA to set national caps, so-called National Ambient Air Quality Standards, for greenhouse gases, including an upper limit of 350 ppm for carbon dioxide.  The establishment of national pollution limits would require states to amend their State Implementation Plans to provide for attainment of the caps.

Some national environmental groups have dismissed the petition as a pointless political statement that should be relegated to the bureaucratic dustbin.  They prefer to have EPA move forward using new source performance rules and national performance standards for targeted industrial sources.  Their concern is a potential congressional backlash that could precipitate narrow legislation blocking EPA’s ability to act rather than the comprehensive climate change legislation we need.  EPA has already signaled its intent to focus on performance standards for major sources with the “tailoring rule” it proposed in September.  The Administrator’s polite but tepid response to the filing of the petition certainly wasn’t encouraging for those seeking more aggressive administrative action.

Yet the idea of attacking greenhouse gas emissions more broadly through national caps and State Implementation Plans is not so far-fetched.  Unlike new source performance standards, SIPs need not be limited to major industrial polluters.  They could be used to begin addressing carbon emissions associated with many other sectors traditionally regulated by states and municipalities.  SIPs might, for instance, help reshape land use, transportation, agricultural, and forestry policies.  Indeed, activities across many of these sectors are the very same ones that California is trying to reach with its far-sighted AB 32 and SB375 legislation.

We now have several decades of experience with this cooperative federalism approach to air pollution control.  It would be a shame to disregard its possibilities in the greenhouse gas arena without more careful thought.  If we are serious about global warming, it seems we ought to be willing, at least, to look – and look creatively – at every tool we have.