Poking the Policy Bear…
In our first post we discussed the general issues of carbon dioxide(CO2), climate change and stated the dire need for new technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. We followed with a more positive second post that illustrated how a massive effort could succeed in converting another inert gas nitrogen(N2) into useful chemicals. Before we delve into some of the emerging technologies for carbon sequestration and conversion, we thought it appropriate to look at our nation’s past and current climate change policy as well as the international policies in place.
When I started researching U.S. and global policy on CO2 I thought that I’d look up the wording of some major bills, find out which agencies are involved and try to quantify how much funding is going where. I figured I would then bundle up all of this information into a concise and cleverly worded report that could be easily understood by all of our readers and provide a launch-pad for some interesting debates. Oh, how naïve was I…
First off, it’s no wonder that most politicians hold advanced degrees in law; a simple scientist sorting through some of these documents is akin to a drunk four-year old trying to assemble Ikea furniture with a manual written in Klingon. Secondly, although my personal politics lie mainly to the left, I now understand why so many Republicans cry out against “big government”; there are, like, 50 million agencies, offices, committees, subcommittees, councils, covens, whathaveyou, all somehow tied to climate change. And thirdly, chasing down the money… Forgettaboutit! Seriously, don’t even bother.
So how to proceed? How do we summarize our past and current policy on CO2 and global worming? We don’t. We will, however, try to narrow it down to a few key points here and then elaborate upon them in future articles. We will inevitably miss huge issues, oversimplify complex concepts and probably leave you saying “huh?” (but don’t worry, you won’t be alone!)
A (very) brief history of climate change policy:
Global warming as a result of the Greenhouse Effect was first “discovered” by the famed oceanographer, Roger Revelle. A long-standing argument against the phenomenon had been that the immense oceans of Earth would quickly absorb the excess anthropogenic carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. However, in 1957, Revelle and Hans Suess (yes, Doctor Suess!) explained how the “peculiar chemistry of sea water” prevents this presumed amelioration. By way of conclusion, Revelle remarked that “Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.”
Left: Roger Revelle, Right: Hans Suess (see References & Notes for image credits)
This can be thought of as the “opening shot” in the ongoing debate on global warming. In fact, when a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) produced a “First general report on climatology to the Chief of the Weather Bureau” in 1957, it picked up a metaphor that Revelle had begun to use: “In consuming our fossil fuels at a prodigious rate, our civilization is conducting a grandiose scientific experiment.”
[Interlude music plays, go get yourself a cup of coffee and a snack…]
Environmental awareness was growing, holes in the ozone layer, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, the first “Earth Day” was celebrated, Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), California smog sucks, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, etc…
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The IPCC is the leading body for the assessment of climate change and its goal is to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences. The responsibilities of IPCC are broken down into the following “Working Groups”: Working Group I deals with “The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change”, Working Group II with “Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” and Working Group III with “Mitigation of Climate Change”. To date they have released four assessment reports and are currently working on a fifth due to be finalized in 2014.
The second assessment report was released in 1995 and its findings directly influenced the groundbreaking Kyoto Protocol of 1997. The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, amounting to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012. Additionally, the Protocol recognizes that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity and places a heavier burden on them under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”
This was the first time a multi-national, binding agreement to reduce CO2 emissions had been reached and applied to 37 industrialized countries and the European community. There are currently 191 parties to the agreement, including the U.S., however we are the only developed country that has still refused to ratify the protocol.
In 2007, the IPCC released their fourth and most famous assessment report. It was the largest and most detailed summary of the climate change situation to date and earned them the Nobel Peace Prize (shared with Al Gore) for raising awareness about the perils of global warming. The take-home messages were that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”
Okay, okay, we get it: CO2 emissions due to human activity are a problem! Sheesh, you don’t have to yell…
“The Scream by Edvard Munch
In December of 2009, the UNFCCC organized another conference in Copenhagen, Denmark (aka “the Copenhagen Summit”). This was actually the fifth meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol and aimed to reassess and strengthen the agreement to reduce CO2 emissions. Although it was not unanimously passed, the Copenhagen Accord was drafted by the U.S., China, Brazil, India and South Africa and states that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the present day and that actions should be taken to keep any temperature increases to below 2°C. The document is not legally binding and does not contain any legally binding commitments for reducing CO2 emissions.
So what is the US actually doing these days?
On April 2, 2007, in Massachusetts v. EPA, (549 U.S. 497 2007), the Supreme Court found that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act. Lisa P. Jackson, the current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was charged with determining whether emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare, or whether the science is too uncertain to make a reasoned decision. Nearly two years later, in April of 2009, the EPA issued a proposed finding that indeed greenhouse gases contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare. And in December of 2009, the final findings were published in the Federal Register. This ruling officially authorizes the EPA to regulate greenhouse gasses and although the ruling does not require the federal government to act, it puts new pressure on congress to act.
In July of 2009, the leaders of 17 industrialized countries, including President Obama, met at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate and declared:
“As leaders of the world’s major economies, both developed and developing, we intend to respond vigorously to this challenge, being convinced that climate change poses a clear danger requiring an extraordinary global response, that the response should respect the priority of economic and social development of developing countries, that moving to a low-carbon economy is an opportunity to promote continued economic growth and sustainable development, that the need for and deployment of transformational clean energy technologies at lowest possible cost are urgent, and that the response must involve balanced attention to mitigation and adaptation.”
There is general consensus among economists and policy analysts that a market-based approach should be central to any domestic policy that targets CO2 emissions. There are two main angles: one is a carbon tax and the other is a cap-and-trade system. Since nobody likes taxes, we’ll focus on the latter option. Essentially, the cap-and-trade system places a ceiling (or cap) on the total emissions of a source by creating a limited number of tradable emission allowances for a given period of time. Because the allowances are tradable, the market will dictate emission reduction efforts. Some companies will find it cheaper to develop procedures that reduce their emissions versus purchasing more allowances and others will find the reverse. Basically, the government says the country has X amount of allowable CO2 emissions and we have to divvy it up amongst ourselves. For a thorough and quite readable analysis click here.
The Climate Security Act of 2007 (or the “Lieberman-Warner Bill”) was a cap-and-trade bill that was initially supported by business because it gave away carbon credits to start with instead of auctioning them off. It aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by between 60% and 65% below present levels by 2050. It was ultimately defeated on June 6, 2008.
Introduced in the January 2009 budget, President Obama proposed a relatively basic plan for a cap and trade regime designed to reduce emissions to 14% below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83% below 2005 levels by 2050. The plan would auction carbon credits to industries, rather than just giving them away. Of the money collected, $150 billion over the next 12 years would be used to invest in clean energy. The rest of the money would be returned to tax payers, especially low income families.
The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (or the “Waxman-Markey Bill”) was passed in June 2009 by the House. It is also a cap-and-trade bill, although significantly more comprehensive and ambitious than its predecessors as it aims to reduce American greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 2005 levels by 2020, and to 83% below 2005 levels by 2050. It also mandates that 25% of the nation’s energy be produced from renewable sources by 2025, creates new energy efficiency programs, puts limits on the carbon content of motor fuels, and requires greenhouse gas standards for new heavy duty vehicles and engines. This bill would give away most of the initial carbon credits, auction off some, and then use the proceeds to give subsidies to some industries -including coal – as well as to low income tax payers. Additionally, the bill states that the new system would replace any regulations that may be formed by the EPA under the authority of the Clean Air Act. The bill has currently stalled in the Senate.
The most recent attempt at a comprehensive federal CO2 emission policy is being undertaken by Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and, until recently, Lindsey Graham (who has now pulled out of negotiations). Often called a “cap-and tax” plan, their “tri-partisan” bill is viewed as a bit of a departure from the previous cap-and-trade proposals. It aspires to a 17% emissions cut by 2020 and a cut of 80% by 2050. Within that framework, the bill has less restrictive capping overall, will probably include a carbon tax and focuses more heavily on creating energy jobs. This bill also explicitly states that it would pre-empt any state level or agency regulations of carbon, including those put forth by the EPA. Of course all of this is complicated by the EPA moving ahead with plans to unilaterally mandate emission reductions. We’ll have to just wait and see…
In the absence of a firm federal policy, many individual states have moved forward with their own plans to reduce CO2 emissions. For example, a cap-and-trade program developed under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) was launched in January of 2009 and adopted by 10 northeastern states. Unfortunately greenhouse gasses do not seem to recognize state lines…
We aren’t currently bound by the international Kyoto Protocol and we don’t have a responsive federal policy in place to reduce CO2 emissions yet, so what do we have? Well, we have the desire to stabilize our economy and to remain a global economic leader…
“So we have a choice to make. We can remain one of the world’s leading importers of foreign oil, or we can make the investments that would allow us to become the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy. We can let climate change continue to go unchecked, or we can help stop it. We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for lasting prosperity.” -President Obama, March 19, 2009
… and that means we have to fund more research on new technologies that combat climate change, namely for CO2 sequestration and conversion.
A detailed and meaningful analysis of U.S. science and technology funding would require at least another 2 or 3 or 4 pages of writing, not to mention an advanced math degree and probably a giant bottle of Advil.
For now, we’ll simply mention the most recent major allocation under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The stimulus package led to $32.7 billion in energy grants and the breakdown can be found here. These grants include $16.8 billion to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) for research and development. A breakdown of the funded EERE projects can be found here.
Okay, so that’s a start…
But where does it leave us? We still aren’t near to a consensus between our lawmakers (or the general public) on what to do next. What everyone seems to agree upon, however, is that we need technologies to combat, counteract, and employ greenhouse gases. What are these technologies going to look like? Where are they going to come from? How does the science of CO2 sequestration and conversion work? Our next two posts in this discussion will address these questions.
So, for now, breathe deep (unless you want to reduce your own carbon emissions), find that bottle of advil and go read US Weekly.
General References and notes:
Most references for this article were embedded as links within the text.
National Academy of Sciences, Division of Earth Sciences, Committee on Climatology (T.F. Malone, chair) (1957). First General Report on Climatology to the Chief of the Weather Bureau. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.
Image credits: Revelle and Suess (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives; 1930s photo by Eugene LaFond and From Hans Suess Papers, MSS 199, Mandeville Special Collections, Library, University of California, San Diego)
EPA authority to regulate GHG emissions: Click here.
Aside: Interestingly, it was Revelle who first empassioned our current climate change champion while teaching at Harvard, the (in)famous former-almost-president, Al Gore.