The debate on global warming is burdened with unfortunate misconceptions that inhibit progress in moving forward (see “Planning for a Climate-Changed World”).
One misconception is that “draconian measures” would be required to mitigate global warming. This is simply not so, if we implement a prudent program right away. Such a program would include four major strategies: increased energy efficiency (in buildings, autos, and appliances), coal mitigation (which includes increased use of solar, wind, geothermal, and perhaps nuclear power, as well as carbon capture and sequestration for coal-fired power plants), the development of new biofuels (such as cellulosic ethanol), and reversal of deforestation. These strategies can stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at acceptable levels and for acceptable economic costs.
Another misconception is that it would be better to wait to take action until technology provides new options. In fact, we need to start reducing emissions right away. If we delay, the world will face a dreadful dilemma: the choice between adopting draconian measures and passing the “tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences,” as the NASA climate scientist James Hansen puts it.
Another misconception is that a cap-and-trade system is the best approach to controlling the various greenhouse gases. Such a system sets a cap on total emissions and distributes emission allowances (or permits to emit) to market participants. These participants must buy allowances if they don’t have enough, and they may sell them if they have an excess. Such a system has helped reduce sulfur and nitrogen emissions from power plants in the United States.
But there are major problems with relying too heavily on this approach. The biggest is that it is too hard to figure out the economic and environmental effects. Prudent people do not want to risk unacceptable economic consequences. Other prudent people do not want to risk accomplishing too little. A politically acceptable compromise might take a long time and would probably tilt too far toward economic prudence, failing to achieve the necessary reductions.
Performance standards are a simpler approach. They would directly regulate the pollutants from new sources of emissions, such as power plants and autos, and mandate greater efficiency for new appliances and buildings. Performance standards can be implemented right away, without fear of unforeseen adverse economic consequences. They alone would result in major emission reductions over time. Such reductions could then be complemented by whatever additional help a cap-and-trade system provides.
Hoff Stauffer is the managing director of the Wingaersheek Research Group, which focuses primarily on global climate change. He previously worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and various consulting firms.