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.


Shades of Green: Obama vs Hillary on the Environment by ddelcourt
February 20, 2008, 5:57 pm
Filed under: Politics

Originally Posted on Huffington Post.

Senators Clinton and Obama are battling state-by-state with platforms so strikingly similar that news anchors often resort to broad generalizations and horse-race style talking points. Both candidates stress the centrality of environmental and energy issues in guiding the nation’s future, yet it remains difficult to discern concrete distinctions between the candidates’ positions.

In short, let us abstract away for a moment from Hillary’s vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq; forget about Obama’s relative inexperience on the international scene and both candidates’ aggressive programs for economic and health care stimuli. We are going to concentrate on the candidates environmental and energy platforms to examine the various shades of green.

The Similarities: Both candidates are full supporters of: a cap-and-trade permitting system to cut U.S. emissions 80% below their 1990 levels by 2050, with proceeds from the sale of permits going towards renewable energy projects, R&D and energy efficiency measures; increased CAFE and EPA fuel efficiency standards; zero-emissions government building requirements; 25% renewable energy portfolio standards by 2025; 60 billion gallons of biofuel available for cars and trucks by 2030; a federal sponsored venture capital fund towards clean technologies; investment in a green collar workforce; and both support coal-to-liquid, provided it is proven 20% more efficient then conventional fuels (still on the fence about this one myself, even if 20% efficiency is achieved). In essence, Obama and Hillary share many of the same views on this crucial issue of climate change.

The Differences: Obama walks two slippery slopes in his campaign. First, he is a Senator from coal-rich Illinois, the state in which the government’s first coal-to-liquid FutureGen plant is slated to be built. Secondly, he is a proponent of increased use of nuclear energy, which Hillary opposes until more research is done regarding associated hazardous waste stream. (Even though in 2005, Bill Clinton helped a large energy financier gain the exclusive rights to mine Uranium in Kazakhstan). However, Obama does stress investment in local ownership of biofuel refineries and remains stringently in favor of 50% industry energy use through efficiency measures by 2030. Hillary on the other hand, has been less vocal then Obama as a proponent of America as the global climate leader. Her strong differentiators are a proposed a plan with Connie Mae in order to make green homes easier for families to purchase, her support for the complete phase out of incandescent light bulbs and a proposed series of Smart Grid city partnerships to increase the use of on-demand energy efficiency measures. While there are other nuanced differences, these are a few of my highlights.

The Shortfalls: This is a tricky category, but I think there are two large issues neither Obama nor Clinton have addressed. The first is the moratorium on the erection of new coal power plants. Many continue to view coal-to-liquid technologies as a “silver bullet” scheme that is years away from being economically and ecologically sensible – one without the other doesn’t help anyone. Secondly, neither candidate has effectively outlined an actual plan to put the U.S. in a role as the global leader in combating climate change, parallel to our economic success. We need to see a portion of revenue from carbon permitting and other activity being diverted towards countries with highest global warming associated risks. This is an international problem, from which we can not hide, and to which we have contributed the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gases over the past century. It’s time we take accountability and share some of the wealth we have accumulated over the past one hundred years thanks to the burning of fossil fuels.

In short, both candidates support very healthy environmental and energy policy measures even though neither platform is revolutionary. Meanwhile, the past 7 years have yielded nothing more then a free-for-all on the environment for corporate interests, so beware of any candidates claiming success compared with the Bush administration’s track record.

To end, here are two indicative quotes from the candidates regarding climate change. As I mentioned previously in a December Huffington Post piece and as Adam Brown alluded to in his de-politicization of the environment post, the time for action is now, the environment has suffered from corporate interests and political divides too long.

“Washington hasn’t acted; and that is the real reason why America hasn’t led.” — Senator Obama

“We can empower individuals with new tools and technology to lead the green revolution one home, one car and one business at a time. These choices determine the energy we use, the carbon we emit, and the world we leave for our children. I believe, when called upon, Americans will choose a clean energy future. This generation can become the Greenest Generation. We only need to light a spark – and that’s what I’ll do as president.” — Senator Clinton