Carbon Crusaders

What’s at stake today by axelman
November 5, 2008, 2:17 am
Filed under: Global Warming, Politics

I doubt that a post on this blog is going to sway many votes, but, just in case, I think it’s important to point out the vast difference between the two candidates on the environment. While John McCain would (almost by definition) be better for the environment than George W. Bush, Barack Obama’s plans (if enacted) would represent a sea change for the fight against climate change, green tech, and our energy future.

This isn’t to say that Obama would be perfect on the environment. He has a long history of supporting corn-based ethanol, a very problematic fuel which uses more fossil fuel to produce than it saves. Further, he is on the record supporting “clean coal” production, which is still largely an oxymoron (because plans such as carbon capture and storage are still controversial and uneconomical). Further, on the most widely known environmental problem today, climate change, Obama and McCain have similar plans: A national cap-and-trade plan to limit carbon emissions. On the surface, then, the choice doesn’t seem that dramatic.

The devil, however, is in the details. There are two main differences between their climate change plans:

First, by 2050, Obama would reduce emissions by 80% of 1990 levels. McCain stops at 60%. Second, Obama would use a market-based auction to allocate permits that power CAT policy, while McCain would simply give them to polluters, providing huge annual handouts to a favoured few at everyone else’s expense.

There is a significant difference between auctioning permits and handing them out. Giving companies who pollute permits for free essentially rewards them for polluting, as the companies who pollute the most will have the most permits. While there is an incentive to reduce emissions and thus be able to trade permits to others, there are no costs associated with failing to reduce emissions. Forcing an auction is often politically¬† difficult, because powerful business lobbies are invariably opposed to significant new costs. However, the failure of Europe’s first Emissions Trading Scheme (in which permits were handed out, the cost of carbon permits stayed low, the EU emissions continued to rise, and businesses made profits from their permits) demonstrates that there must be sticks as well as carrots in order for a cap-and-trade plan to work.

The second major difference is related to green tech and our energy future. Both candidates want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but the differences between their plans couldn’t be bigger. John McCain’s focus is on greater fossil fuel production in the United States (offshore drilling), importing oil from friendly nations (Canada, even though the oil market is global), and a pointless $300 million prize for whoever comes up with a good electric car battery (pointless because they would make tons of money from the battery anyway). Obama has a much larger vision, however. He proposes rebuilding the American economy through a $500 billion investment in renewable energy, hybrid vehicle tax credits, “green collar” jobs, and energy efficiency. This Keynsian approach would (theoretically) build the framework for decades of economic growth in the same way that FDR’s New Deal built the framework for the post-WWII economic boom. While this plan is undoubtedly ambitious and costly, a drastic change is necessary to truly become energy independent and reduce the scope of climate change.

This election may mark the turning point in the global fight against climate change. If Barack Obama is able to accomplish half of what he proposes in the next four (or eight!!) years, the United States will be a much cleaner, efficient, and sustainable country. Nothing less than our environmental future is at stake in this election.