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Driving Mitigation Wedges with a Carbon Tax
I frequent a few online discussions on climate change and I see a lot of disagreement on what can and should be done to mitigate climate change. These arguments generally go something like:
- Wind can't do it because the wind doesn't always blow.
- Solar can't do it because it's dark at night.
- Nuclear could do it, but it is too dangerous.
- Conservation isn't enough.
- And so on...
There are partial truths to each of the objections, and it is probably true that none of these can solve the problem by themselves. What some people fail to consider is that these are not mutually exclusive strategies. It will require a combination of strategies to sustain our way of life while weaning us off our fossil fuel dependency.
The necessity of leveraging more than one mitigation strategy is not a new thought. Nearly a decade ago two researchers, Pacala and Socolow, wrote an influential paper that outlined 15 strategies that could be used to reduce the increase in atmospheric CO2 content. In time, some combination of these will bring the increase to zero and stabilize the climate. (This paper has been cited by nearly 1,800 other research papers; in case you are not familiar with citation rates in general, that is a very large number.) The main idea was that each of these strategies could reduce the increase a little bit, effectively wedging it down a notch at a time.
One version of the list is:
- Double fuel efficiency of 2 billion cars from 30 to 60 mpg.
- Decrease the number of car miles traveled by half.
- Use best efficiency practices in all residential and commercial buildings.
- Produce current coal-based electricity with twice today's efficiency.
- Replace 1400 coal electric plants with natural gas-powered facilities.
- Capture AND store emissions from 800 coal electric plants.
- Produce hydrogen from coal at six times today's rate AND store the captured CO2.
- Capture carbon from 180 coal-to-synfuels plants AND store the CO2.
- Nuclear. Add double the current global nuclear capacity to replace coal-based electricity.
- Increase wind electricity capacity by 10 times relative to today, for a total of 2 million large windmills.
- Solar. Install 100 times the current capacity of solar electricity.
- Use 40,000 square kilometers of solar panels (or 4 million windmills) to produce hydrogen for fuel cell cars.
- Increase ethanol production 12 times by creating biomass plantations with area equal to 1/6th of world cropland.
- Eliminate tropical deforestation.
- Adopt conservation tillage in all agricultural soils worldwide.
The good news is that in 2004, we only needed about half of these to achieve what we thought was considered a reasonably safe goal, and every one of them is possible with existing technology. The bad news is that we have taken half measures on less than half of these, and it is looking like a 2C increase is less safe than we once thought. Now we need more than 8 wedges; I've seen estimates on what is required from 12 to 21 wedges. (Yes, if the correct answer is 21, we have to invent some more wedges, or double down on several of them.)
Which wedges should we drive forward; which will give us the most return on our investment over the coming decades? Honestly, I do not know. However, I'm fairly certain that the free market is pretty good at finding the most cost-effective solutions. The market is driven by costs; so, if you want to move the market, you have to shift its cost structure. Changing the way we produce energy will be somewhat disruptive. There will be start-ups that fail, and technologies that don't live up to their initial promise, but the more effective solutions will grow and thrive.
Currently the fossil fuel industry enjoys the benefit of not suffering any of the costs of the changing climate they are causing. Burning all the reserves these companies have on record will push the temperature far past the level agreed to be the upper limit of safe by a consensus of nations, including ours. Continuing under a business-as-usual plan will bring an end to business as usual. We could try to stop this from happening through regulation or government subsidies, but people and corporations have a history of finding ways to avoid the intent of regulations, and I don't trust our politicians with your money, much less mine. It would be simpler and more conducive to transparency to tax fossil fuels at the source or entry port until producing energy with them is more expensive than the alternatives.
Having said that, I do not know anybody who thinks it it a good idea to try to make this change overnight. We have to balance the need to avoid economic collapse with the need to avoid environmental collapse. Either will be very bad for us.
A commitment to gradually phase in a carbon tax would encourage investors and inventors to develop 13 of the 15 wedges. That would be one piece of legislation instead of a hodge-podge of regulations. I do not think that limiting deforestation and improving agricultural sequestration would be directly affected by a simple carbon tax, but maybe something in the legislation could help with that. A carbon tax would not commit us to any particular set of wedges to use, and it would not put the government in a position to pick the winners (and losers). It would create a cost structure where at least part of the damages resulting from dumping CO2 into the air would be borne by those most responsible for the increase.
There are legitimate concerns about how a tax on carbon is implemented. It is likely that you are not the first person to think of whatever concern you have; so, I recommend you look over the information at the following sites.
If you are interested in the concepts of mitigation wedges, you can find more information on them at these sources.
- Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies
- Stabilization Wedges Introduction
- Risks of relying on any fixed set of solutions
In the war for a sustainable future there are many battles. If we lose the battle on carbon, we lose the war.