Global leaders have a limited window of time to enact effective policy that will greatly decrease the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. And that window is shrinking rapidly. In December, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen for the United Nation's Conference of the Parties to sign the treaty that will replace the Kyoto Protocol. Many are calling this meeting the world's last chance to do something in time to change the future.
I met up with Worldchanging ally and environmental leader Denis Hayes to discuss the importance of climate regulating policy and what, in his opinion, must be included in that policy in order to achieve the results we need.
Sarah Kuck: Right now there are a lot of people talking about the proposed U.S. cap and trade bill Waxman-Markey (now out of committee), as well as what will happen in Copenhagen during the COP15. Can you share with us your feelings about what climate policy should look like and why?
Denis Hayes: There are potential solutions, they just have no political muscle behind them. I frankly wish that Copenhagen weren’t out there right now. If Copenhagen were a year and a half away, this whole thing would be so much easier. We’re in a position right now where unless we send a signal to the world that America is willing to work on climate, then Copenhagen will be basically scrapped. If we don’t have something that is a step forward in America, probably by July, then Copenhagen is unlikely to be very important or dramatic.
The alternative is to [implement legislation that] treats biological carbon sources and geological carbon sources separately. There are enough biological carbon sources going into the atmosphere right now that they deserve to have their own system. I’m not in favor of sequestering carbon from fossil resources by investing in biological resources. It’s just a loophole that lets you plow a whole lot more carbon into the atmosphere. You can pursue that sort strategy, but you will have a far more carbon intense atmosphere five years from now than if you would have closed that loophole.
Geological sources should not be interchanged with biological ones -- it’s just completely different sorts of things. If you are going to take oil, gas, bituminous sands, shale or coal out of the ground and burn it, it should have to fall under a rigid carbon cap.
If you are trying to get some kind of a trade to work, what you need is a legally enforceable regime, not like the one you currently have on a completely volunteer basis. And you need to be able to say to somebody, if you want to burn that lump of coal, you have to have purchased this offset someplace. And the tougher the regime, the more expensive they will be.
If you or your country wants to be burning some more carbon, you have to acquire a permit to get that carbon. And you’d acquire it not where the CO2 leaves the smokestack or the tailpipe, but where the carbon enters the economy. In the United States, there’s just a few hundred places: where pipelines come in from Canada, ports of entry from ships coming into the country, the mouths of coal mines, oil fields. The carbon-based fuel cannot pass through there unless you have a permit and all of the permits will be auctioned and you’ve got an absolute cap that there’s no way around to get those permits, and they go down every year. It is in effect a carbon tax, except unlike a tax, it doesn’t require an act of Congress every time you want to adjust it because you’ve already laid out how much you are going to be bringing it down.
You don’t need to worry about the elasticity or how much you have to raise the tax in order to diminish the demand for carbon because you are working the other direction. You diminish the demand for carbon and the price you pay at the auction is driven by market phenomenon. It’s perfect, it’s elegant, it will work, and nobody supports it.