Monday, June 23, 2008

Last Chance

At the 2008 EarthWorks Expo in Denver, keynote speaker Peter Barnes shared some disturbing news: Recent measurements of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may now exceed the upper limit for avoiding accelerated, self-sustaining global warming (350 ppm). This means that to avoid catastrophic climate change the world must stop emitting carbon dioxide altogether and work to remove the excess amount (37 ppm) already in the atmosphere, and do so as soon as possible.

Summarizing his latest book Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide, Barnes argued that the world only has one chance to avert a climate catastrophe, and there is no room for error. No later than 2009 (when the obstructionist Bush Administration will finally be out of office), the United States must make sweeping changes to the way it does business and convince the rest of the world to follow suit.

Barnes reviewed the options currently being considered – taxes, trading systems, regulations – in terms of how they address key failures in economics and politics and their practical viability, arguing that none have a chance of making enough of a difference fast enough. He then described his preferred solution, a “cap and dividend” system which would involve having an organization modeled on the Federal Reserve set declining limits (caps) for suppliers of fossil fuels to the economy, auctioning permits for selling the fuel and paying dividends from payments (received for the permits) to households that would offset the inevitable rise in prices. The net result of Barnes’s solution would be a strong economic incentive for people to invest in alternatives to carbon, which of course is what we need to deal with the particular problem of carbon dioxide pollution.

There is no obvious downside to this solution within the context of stopping carbon dioxide emissions, given its fairness and high chance of effectiveness due largely to its targeting of caps toward the relatively small number of suppliers rather than users. The solution would even help with the oil depletion problem, since it would reduce the consumption of this limited resource. As for the problem of excess carbon dioxide, Barnes suggested planting trees and improving agriculture methods to include building soil (his book was written before this was a problem, so he apparently hadn’t thought much about it).

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, global warming is the most obvious manifestation of the larger problem of reducing biodiversity, and I’m not totally convinced that solving this one problem will necessarily improve the overall situation. I am specifically concerned with how people would spend the dividends from a cap and dividend system: Will they choose alternatives that are just as harmful to the biosphere (or more so)? Perhaps putting a price on biodiversity loss using the natural capital model would be a better solution, since this is the net effect of destructive human activity such as pollution; however, implementing such a solution would possibly be much harder than one that deals with something as tangible as carbon fuels.

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