A Commentary on Ed Dolan’s assessment of Rep. Tonko’s Nine Principles of Climate Action

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Let’s think outside of the box.

Pombriant: I applaud both of you for your interest and sincere efforts on climate change. However, I wish to offer some corrections and point out a bigger picture solution.

Apr 27

Dolan: On March 21, Rep. Paul Tonko, who chairs the House subcommittee on Environment & Climate Change, published a list of nine principles of climate action.

Pombriant: Rep. Tonko/Dr. Dolan have numbered the principles and Dr. Dolan added his comments which I label. For easier reading, I have added my comments with my name in bold. I apologize for using bold. It’s not meant to be aggressive but I have limited options.

1. Adopt Science-Based Targets for Greenhouse Gas Neutrality by Mid-Century

Dolan: We certainly need a radical reduction in GHG emissions by mid-century, but full net carbon neutrality may be an overreach. Emissions reduction, like many economic and engineering processes, tends to follow an 80/20 pattern, wherein the first 80 percent of the cleanup absorbs half the cost while the remaining 20 percent costs as much again as the first 80. Even within the last 20 percent, most of the cost is in the last few percentage points. A schedule of reductions like that given in HR 763, a fee-and-dividend approach backed by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which calls for roughly an 88 percent reduction by 2050, would be more realistic.

Pombriant: Reducing emissions misses the point. There are about 7 trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere right now (US EIA) and we are adding 40 gigatons per year (US EIA) to the total. Reducing the rate of increase only slows the addition. It doesn’t solve the problem so let’s not think like that. Instead, we need solutions that actively remove carbon. I estimate we need to remove 1 trillion tons which can be done over a decade by doubling the amount of photosynthesis taking place on the planet. This would bring us back to CO2 levels of the 1990’s. Not great but better. The approach would be open ocean iron fertilization which has a minimal effect on ocean ecology.

We are also running out of fossil fuels. US DOE estimates we have 50 years of oil reserves (1.687 trillion bbls of oil, according to the BP 2014 annual report) on the planet and about 477 billion short tons of coal (US DOE) about 100 years-worth.

Our challenge is to remove carbon from the air and convert the economy to renewable electric power with deliberate speed. We have to do both.

2. A Clean U.S. Economy Must Be Strong, Competitive, and Fair. Congress must ensure emerging clean energy industries provide fair wages and safe working conditions. It must also protect America’s energy-intensive and trade-exposed industries from anti-competitive behavior by nations that have not taken significant steps to combat climate change or enforce meaningful labor and environmental standards.

Dolan: If “fair wages and safe working conditions” mean adherence to wage and working standards applicable to the entire U.S. labor force, then this is all to the good. However, it would be wrong to require decarbonization jobs to meet higher standards than those that prevail elsewhere. Labor reform is a separate issue that should not be approached through the back door of climate policy.

Similarly, climate action should not become a pretense to pursue a broader program of trade protectionism. The best approach to international aspects of decarbonization is to impose a domestic carbon tax with strong, WTO-compliant, border adjustments to prevent the transfer of carbon intensive manufacturing to other parts of the world. (Again, see HR 763 for a well-thought-out border adjustment mechanism.)

Pombriant: A new 50 to 60 year economic wave is beginning. Called a K-wave it will generate the jobs and economic security needed because the jobs will be in sustainability. US BLS says the top jobs for high school grads right now are wind turbine technician and solar panel installer. We need to add to that charging station developers who convert parking lots to charging areas. There are many more jobs like this as well as entrepreneurial opportunities awaiting. Do not expect the fossil fuel paradigm to hold for the rest of your lifetime. It is rapidly decaying. Think about it: the revolutions that brought us electricity, telephone, railroads, cable TV, and computing were largely, if not exclusively, the result of private investment.

3. Climate Action Should Invest in America’s Future. Such action requires Congressional support for innovations in technology, policy, and finance to accelerate the clean energy transition

Dolan: Yes — so long as such investment is guided by sound business principles. A broad investment incentive such as a carbon tax would be tech neutral. It should not require the government to pick winners in ways that are vulnerable to lobbying by special interests or risk locking in technology mistakes, such as mandates for use of ethanol as a motor fuel.

Pombriant: Congress has only a tangential responsibility. It can support tax breaks for buying EVs or building charging infrastructure, for example. A good model is how congress approached spreading the telephone, electricity, and cable networks. It did little other than providing some seed money for R&D in some cases but mostly it got out of the way and let free enterprise do the heavy lifting. One big exception was the 1936 Rural Electrification Act in the middle of the Great Depression, part of a Keynesian economic stimulus that happened at the tail end of electrification. The rest is K-waves, they don’t need taxpayer support.

4. Climate Action Should Deliver a Just and Equitable Transition. . . 5. Climate Action Should Protect Low-Income Households

Dolan: Principles four and five can best be served through a carbon tax with an appropriate fraction of the revenue distributed as a dividend to low-income groups. “It will hurt the poor” should never be allowed to override “It will help the environment.” (For a full discussion, see my earlier post, “Would a Carbon Tax Really Hurt the Poor?”

Pombriant: A carbon tax is a nonstarter.Since we’re already running out of carbon-based fuels a carbon tax will lead at best to diminishing returns. If you want to be fair and help the poor then build a society that doesn’t require owning a car to get to work. More public transportation is a good place to start.

6. Climate Action Should Strengthen Community Resilience to Better Withstand New Climate Realities

Dolan: This is an important point. Any climate policy must emphasize the complementarity of mitigation and adaptation. Because of the inherent momentum of global climate systems, even cutting GHG emissions immediately to zero would not stop long-term processes like sea-level rise or changes in rainfall patterns in their tracks. We will inevitably need to adapt.

Pombriant: Agree. However absorbing carbon and naturally reducing earth’s average temperature would do a lot to slow glacial melting and return weather patterns to what they were suggesting more snow cover and rain in appropriate places and times of year.

7. Climate Action Should Empower State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Governments.

Dolan: Yes, of course everyone should pitch in and everyone should have a voice. But “empowerment” should not mean granting every local community a right to veto wind turbine or extensions of the smart grid. If climate is to be a priority effort, we must maintain a global perspective, not capitulate to every manifestation of NIMBYism.

Pombriant: Agree. However, we need to think about what technologies are most effective. Wind and Solar have a place, but they are intermittent. Enhanced Geothermal (MIT, US DOE 2006) has the best chance of replacing the fossil fuel paradigm. From what I’ve seen rich people are the proponents of NIMBY. A Koch brother on Cape Cod. Donald Trump at his golf course in Scotland both opposed wind turbines. Just saying.

8. Climate Action Should Avoid Harm to First Movers. Whenever possible, it should avoid penalizing entities that have taken early action.

Dolan: I don’t really understand what this means. Is there some hidden agenda here? For example, does it mean that because Iowa farmers were “first movers” in gearing up to produce corn ethanol, we should not “harm” them by taking away the subsidies for a technology that, in the opinion of many, has turned out to be a dead end?

Pombriant: I’m not sure either. It should be noted though that ethanol production for motor fuel is a wash energetically, meaning it takes as much energy to make the ethanol as it delivers to the fuel tank. Also, filling your SUV with ethanol would use enough grain to feed a family of 4 for a year. We don’t have the resources to do this. So, these first movers would be eliminated by simple free market mechanics. It happens all the time and no one should be protected.

9. Climate Action Should Create Stable and Predictable Policies. Long-term climate progress requires policy certainty, which requires steady, credible, and politically durable policies, send strong investment signals, and deliver long-term certainty to allow for proper planning and implementation while minimizing compliance costs. Regulators should have the flexibility to undertake periodic scientific reviews of goals, respond to changing conditions, and accommodate new developments in best practices and emerging technologies.

Dolan: Hear, hear! This is the heart of the matter. Can anyone doubt that a carbon tax is the best way to do this? Why not just say so!

Once again, HR 763 points the way. It puts a price on carbon, it treats low-income communities fairly, it includes a strong border adjustment, and it includes comprehensive guidelines for scientific and regulatory review.

Congressman Tonko, your Nine Principles are great! Why not just add your name to the list of sponsors on HR 763? That bill is as good as any we are likely to get any time soon!

Pombriant: A carbon tax doesn’t work. It is unpalatable to people and due to diminishing fossil fuels and moving to alternatives it would not be the incentive or revenue generator we would hope for. Incentives should be placed on the supply of new solutions not taxing old decaying ones, else you are promoting rent seeking. Congressman Tonko and Dr. Dolan, I suggest you look at the thermodynamic and long term economic implications of your proposals as well as looking closely at the declining fossil fuel paradigm to formulate better legislation.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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