Tackling Climate Change

October 7, 2009 at 10:31 am 1 comment

By Liam Moriarty

Climate scientists tell us we’ve got to cut way back on the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere, and fast. Trouble is, just about everything we do creates carbon dioxide. And slashing greenhouse gas emissions is hard. That’s because our industries and transportation are all powered by fossil fuels. For several years, Europe has been trying to use market forces to curb carbon emissions. Now, the U.S. is weighing that approach, too.

alan durning

Alan Durning is executive director at the Sightline Institute, a sustainability-oriented think tank in Seattle

To get a handle on this whole carbon cap and trade business, I turned to Alan Durning. Alan heads the Sightline Institute. That’s a think tank in Seattle that does things like track energy consumption and analyze climate policy. Alan lives and breathes this stuff, but I want to see if we can simplify this a bit, so I ask him if we can find a kitchen-table metaphor. We settle … on marshmallows.

ALAN: We’re consuming too many marshmallows and we’re all getting overweight, so we’re gonna start cutting down on the quantity of marshmallows. Once a week when Dad goes grocery shopping, we’re gonna check in the bag and see how many marshmallows there are. So we say, OK, this year we’re gonna have 100 marshmallows a week and next years it’s gonna go down to 98 and we’re gonna gradually reduce. And then we’ll give people marshmallow coupons. And you turn in a coupon whenever you eat a marshmallow. And the number of coupons you get will diminish over time, the same way as the marshmallow supply diminishes. And if you don’t need your marshmallow coupons, you can sell ‘em.

LIAM: So, I’m only allowed to have 95 marshmallows this year, but I really want more than that. So I’m gonna have to check around the family and maybe my kid sister, she figures, “OK, I’ve developed a real thing for fresh fruit, so I’ll tell you what; I’ll sell you my marshmallow coupons. That way I have money to buy the fresh fruit so I don’t have to eat the marshmallows anymore.” And then I’m able to keep my marshmallow habit going.

ALAN: That’s right. That way we insure that there is actually a reduction in the marshmallow consumption, and collectively we will lose the number of pounds that we need to lose.

Now, here Alan points out a flaw in our analogy: unlike marshmallows, nobody really wants carbon emissions …

“People want the consequences of using energy. Right? They want hot showers and cold beer. But they don’t care about the barrel of oil,” he says. “And if they can get the energy from sunlight or the blowing winds or water running down hill, that’s fine, they don’t care.

And that’s the point of cap and trade: to wean ourselves off dirty fuels by making them scarcer and more expensive, so new, cleaner fuels are more attractive.

Vicky Pollard2

Vicky Pollard monitors international climate change negotiations for the European Commission in Brussels.

Europe was the first to do carbon cap and trade, four years ago. And things got off to a rough start. They set the cap on emissions too high and way overestimated the number of allowances – or, to use our analogy, marshmallow coupons – that companies would need. Vicki Pollard, with the European Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment in Brussels, says it was simple supply and demand.

“It means the price of those allowances crashes,” she says. “They don’t have much value, and so the price went down to almost zero.

Pollard says the whole system got knocked out of kilter, and for the first two years, European carbon emissions actually went up.

Sanjeev Kumar, with the World Wildlife Fund in Brussels, says that — in a weird way – that was a good thing.

WWF 027

Jason Anderson and Sanjeev Kumar follow climate change policy at the European headquarters of the World Wildlife Fund in Brussels

“What’s helpful in European politics,” he says, “is that if you fail, it’s good to fail spectacularly, because that means you can change a lot.”

Kumar says that after the collapse of Phase One, a lot was changed. Now, with most of the major wrinkles ironed out, Europe’s on track to meet its current emissions target.

The business community still has concerns about their bottom line. Folker Franz is with BusinessEurope, sort of the European version of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He says companies worry about the additional cost of carbon emissions putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

Folker Franz  in Brussels

Folker Franz represents BusinessEurope on environmental affairs in Brussels.

“If you produce one ton of steel, you emit roughly one ton of CO2,” he says. “So any ton of steel produced in the E.U. is right now some 17 dollars more expensive than outside the European Union. And that makes a difference.”

Still, Franz says, European businesses accept the need to take prompt action on climate change. And the next phase of the trading system has a tighter cap, more stringent reporting requirements and enforcement with teeth.

A few years ago, with the Bush administration dragging its feet on climate change, a group of western states and Canadian provinces – including Washington — started working on a regional cap and trade market. It’s called the Western Climate Initiative. But, now, that’s on the back burner as the action has moved to the other Washington.

Several months ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a cap and trade bill in many ways modeled after the E.U. system. Now, the Senate is tacking its version. The European Commission’s Vicki Pollard will be following the discussion closely.


World Wide Fund members protest against the construction of new coal plants in Europe, at a demonstration in Brussels last year.
(AP Photo)

“Clearly, the Senate debate is very, very important and everybody’s going to be watching it,” she says. “Not just us in Europe but also the Indians, the Chinese and others.

Folker Franz with BusinessEurope will be watching, too. He says the stakes are very high.

“Because let’s be realistic,” he says. “If the US does not take decisive action, if the US does not put in place a cap and trade scheme, then Japan will not do it, probably even Australia will not do it, let alone China.”

In December, the world will meet in Copenhagen, to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto climate treaty, which the U.S. never ratified. How the climate bill will fare in the Senate and what the President will be able to bring to Copenhagen are both far from certain. But the Europeans I spoke to seem pleased just to see the U.S. finally taking climate change seriously. And – if the federal efforts fall flat – look for the Western Climate Initiative to get put back on the front burner. Liam Moriarty, KPLU News.

Closing Press Briefing, Bonn Climate Change Talks – August 2009
Source: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Briefing the media on the last day of the informal consultations in Bonn, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer says there’s great need for increasing momentum at a high political level for a strong result in Copenhagen, including the G8 and Major Economies Forum. However, a concerted response to climate change was essential to meet the concerns of developing countries.

Mr. de Boer stressed that “a climate deal in Copenhagen this year is an unequivocal requirement to stop climate change from slipping out of control.


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