Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sticks or Carrots? - The Way Forward on Clean Energy

Check out this article from David Leonhardt at the New York Times, examining the pros and cons of Cap and Trade legislation and the benefits of increased funding for clean energy research.  It's worth reading.

Cap and Trade, which at one time was the climate change compromise plan of prominent Republicans like John McCain, failed to get through Congress this year.  But as Leonhardt points out, the defeat is not the end of the road for climate change mitigation.  If anything, it's a chance to start again on a more popular and possibly more effective approach.  Had it passed, Leonhardt says, the Cap and Trade plan might not have been as successful as had been suggested, since it does little to curb the carbon emissions of other nations like China, India, and other developing countries with a growing appetite for cheap (dirty) fuel.  Also, compromises might have made the bill weak to the point that major carbon polluters would be able to cut down on emissions simply by improving efficiency rather than transitioning to new technologies, which means clean energy sources like wind and solar power wouldn't get much of a leg up.  So while the idea was to work within the market to promote a change in our energy economy -- an idea that should appeal to free market conservatives -- the results might have been disappointing, and insufficient.

A new proposal, released jointly from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the progressive Brookings Institution, calls for an increase in annual federal investment for clean energy research to the tune of $25 billion, up from only $4 billion a year now.  A key aspect of the new plan would stipulate that the money only go to programs that are actually reducing the cost of clean energy alternatives.  That's important, because we can't realistically expect individuals, companies or other countries to spend much more than their neighbors on clean energy sources just because they want to do their part to help the environment.  Many of us want to do our part, but we can't all spend tens of thousands of dollars rigging our houses with solar panels, or $40,000 on the new Chevy Volt.  

If the technology can be produced and consumed at competitive prices, though, everything changes.
  While we've had solar power technology for decades, the high cost of photovoltaic cells has kept it from competing with coal and oil.  This problem isn't easily solved, but more government funding will help companies work with experimental technologies that will be the key to reducing costs.  From the consumer's perspective, it's all about price and availability.  There's a big difference between asking people to recycle, which is free, and asking them to spend thousands of dollars more for electric cars or solar panels on the roof.  Solar panels, electric and hybrid cars all need to come down in price significantly before we can expect a large section of the population to opt for them.

We as consumers have no direct control over emissions standards, but if every car were required to get 70 miles to the gallon, there would be no choice.  We would all be driving them, and carbon emissions would be reduced considerably.  Or if every car were an electric car, we would all be driving those.  Nostalgia for muscle cars aside, few of us lament the improvements made in fuel economy over the last several decades.  Fewer of us long for the days when leaded gasoline was the standard.  If automobiles can be cleaner and more efficient, there won't be many complaints.  But there is little impetus for the car companies to self-impose such measures; there must be an external force of some kind.  An oil crisis or a widespread boycott might do the trick, but short of that, only the government has the capacity to set higher standards.  Conservatives worry that the government will impose stiff regulations that stifle business, but if every company is in the same boat, I suspect they will find a way to compete.  There will always be a market for transportation, and if it's a choice between meeting higher standards and not doing business in the United States, most companies will choose the former.

Even so, there is a legitimate debate over whether we achieve better results by imposing rigorous standards for progress, or by stimulating innovation to desired ends with government funding.  The case for the latter is clear: government investment has been responsible for the development of powerful, world-changing technology, like the internet and communications satellites, and as Leonhardt quotes one sponsor of the new proposal, “We didn’t tax typewriters to get the computer. We didn’t tax telegraphs to get telephones."  Superior products will eventually win out, and harnessing the infinitely abundant energy of the wind and the Sun is clearly superior to drilling and mining for finite resources.  The difference with climate change is, we don't have all the time in the world.  We wouldn't be facing a global calamity had it taken another 100 years to get to the computer or the telephone, but we will be facing a global calamity if we wait for market forces alone to change our energy consumption habits.

Reasonable people can disagree on the way forward, but the key is, government has to do something.  It's the only entity that has the power to steer the unconscious group-think of the market.  But regardless of what you think climate change legislation should look like, the first step is making sure the politicians we elect, Republicans or Democrats, actually believe in climate change.  Without that, you can count on seeing precisely nothing done on this issue.

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