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Friday, January 2, 2009

Carbon Cap & Trade in (Parts of) the US

I didn’t give people greenhouse gas credits as holiday gifts, as in, “Happy Chanukah, I’ve offset your carbon footprint for this week!” or “Merry Christmas, I bought you some methane!” or “A fine Festivus to you and yours; I’m fighting global climate change in your name!”

In theory, this would be a reasonable extension of donating to charities as a non-materialistic holiday gift. In practice, I feel like it would end up sounding more like, “Could we celebrate this year by my ramming my beliefs down your throat?”

It’s a precarious balance.

If you shout at people, you alienate them and they ignore your message; if you whisper, most people can’t hear you.

“We’re doomed!” is excessive (Who knew?).

“Pssst, environmental apocalypse coming soon, pass it on,” seems a tad inadequate.

The Happy New Year news is that ReGGIe is now up and running.

Under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, but Reggie to its friends), as of January 1st, ten mid-Atlantic and northeastern states have implemented the first mandatory greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade program in the US.

Straight up the coast, from Maryland to Maine—with Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont in between and with Pennsylvania and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec currently enjoying “observer status,” power companies will have to either reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (for which they will earn salable credits) or pay a fee for every ton of CO2 they emit ($3.38 at the last auction).

The goal is to reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector by 10% by 2018. The money the states collect from the auctions is to be used for energy efficiency projects, renewable energy, and other clean energy technologies.

This is a welcome step from the states, given that the Bush administration (Bye now, don’t forget to write!) has worked to pillage, rather than to preserve, the environment. Hopefully this will serve as a model for the incoming Obama administration, something that can be rolled out nationwide if it works well.

I’m not convinced that The Market Will Save Us! But it’s clear that sending the right economic signals, and setting up incentive systems that push both companies and people to Do the Right Thing is a crucial part of addressing our environmental problems.

And a Happy Festivus to all!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Is the Future Ahead of, or Behind, the US?

Two days after Christmas and the front page of the New York Times is the gift that just keeps giving.

In Germany, The Times reports, they are building houses that remain warm simply via passive solar, massive insulation (and heat exchangers, for fresh air) and retaining the heat generated by people and appliances. According to the article, these houses generate all the heat and hot water the occupants need, using about the same energy as a hair dryer. Cost of building isn’t much above standard construction, a premium of between five and seven percent. The European Union (those brazen communist bureaucrats!) is considering making new buildings meet the same passive energy savings standards by 2011.

In the US meanwhile, we get two front page pointers to stories further on which focus on rather more primitive power production issues: one is about a return to heating homes using coal. Cheaper, more plentiful, domestically produced at a more stable price than oil, coal for home heating was up 9% in 2007 and another 10% in the first eight months of 2008. What’s not to like?

In answer to that question—putting aside that pesky global climate change and the spewing of toxic chemicals and fine particulates into the air—there’s another story further on: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has reported the largest coal ash spill in US history. Coal ash sludge, containing thallium and lead, has burst out of a holding pond at a coal fired power plant on the Emory River, about forty miles west of Knoxville, contaminating the river and engulfing nearby roads and railroad lines. Initial reports had the amount in the neighborhood of 1.7 million cubic yards; the update better than triples this to 5.4 million—particularly interesting given that the TVA had previously reported the total contents of the waste pond to be less than half that amount.

Hard to read this little trifecta of articles and not come away thinking that some societies are moving forward, into the post-fossil fuel future. . . while others are sliding (or actively swimming) backward, into the toxic muck of 19th century technology.

Hard not to ask: WHY???