Tackling Carbon Pollution | June 9, 2014 Issue - Vol. 92 Issue 23 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 92 Issue 23 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: June 9, 2014

Tackling Carbon Pollution

Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: climate change, Obama climate plan, carbon tax

It’s a start.

That’s the charitable way to characterize President Barack Obama’s climate-change policy, which was announced with great fanfare last week. The centerpiece of the new policy was the pledge to reduce “carbon pollution” from power plants by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. This is to be accomplished by a variety of approaches on a state-by-state basis through negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency. This convoluted strategy is necessary because Republicans in Congress resolutely refuse to address climate change.

As Senior Correspondent Jeff Johnson points out in our lead News of the Week story (see page 7), it’s not clear that the 30% reduction in carbon pollution is as significant as it is being made out to be. Nevertheless, the President’s plan—which includes calls for changes in the transportation sector, increased energy efficiency in homes, preparing for the impacts of climate change, and new international efforts to address it—is a clear signal that the U.S. government takes this challenge seriously. That’s progress.

Not surprisingly, the plan was greeted with vitriol. Perhaps the most over-the-top bit of demagoguery came from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “Today’s announcement is a dagger in the heart of the American middle class, and to representative Democracy itself,” he inveighed.

“The President’s plan is nuts, there’s really no more succinct way to describe it,” chimed in House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“This rule is all pain, no gain,” according to Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R), the ranking member of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee. “Clearly, this Administration prioritizes pushing a far-left environmental agenda over providing affordable, reliable electricity across the country.”

Coal-state Democrats, while less strident than Republicans, were just as adamant. “I strongly oppose President Obama’s attack on Kentucky’s energy industry,” said Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, on her website. Grimes is running for McConnell’s Senate seat this fall. “This Administration has taken direct aim at Kentucky’s coal industry, crippling our state’s largest source of domestic energy and threatening thousands of jobs.”

In a statement, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) was more measured, but no more sanguine. “There is no doubt that 7 billion people have had an impact on our world’s climate; however, the proposed EPA rule does little to address the global problem with global solutions. Instead, today’s rule appears to be more about desirability rather than reliability or feasibility, with little regard for rising consumer prices, the effects on jobs, and the impact on the reliability of the electric grid.”

A couple of observations: There’s an interesting example of “framing” in “The President’s Climate Action Plan.” As far as I could tell, carbon dioxide—that innocuous, nontoxic gas that is driving climate change—is mentioned only four times in the 21-page plan. CO2 has morphed into “carbon pollution,” as in the following: “Power plants are the largest concentrated source of emissions in the United States, together accounting for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions. We have already set limits for arsenic, mercury, and lead, but there is no federal rule to prevent power plants from releasing as much carbon pollution as they want.” This is smart politics, akin to Republicans framing the estate tax as a “death tax.”

More important, all arguments that it is somehow wrong to impose higher costs on consumers of fossil fuels are specious. Climate change is a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons.” Fossil fuels are cheap because, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we have treated the atmosphere as an open sewer for disposing CO2. Until the external costs of burning fossil fuels are incorporated into their price, alternative energy sources can never be economically competitive with fossil fuels.

If we are going to get serious about climate change, we have to increase the cost of burning fossil fuels, especially coal. A carbon tax is the most straightforward approach to this. The President’s plan, which at least anticipates a cap-and-trade approach, is a start.

Thanks for reading.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
MICHAEL MCHENRY (June 13, 2014 2:04 PM)
The suggestion that a carbon tax will solve the problem is itself is specious. Europe has had very high taxes on energy in the form of gasoline. Currently prices there are in the range of $7-9/gallon. In the US gasoline retail prices have risen from about $1.00/gallon in 2002 to 3.70/gallon currently (eia.gov). This has had a relatively small impact on consumption. So what kind of tax does he have in mind? The economic impact of taxing electricity at a high rate is mind boggling. This talk also obscures what would have to be done to stabilize CO2 levels. Estimates for a global initiative ranges from 12000 to 15000 750MW nuclear reactors by 2050. That doesn't include the 1.5 billion people currently who do not have access to electricity. If you try to this with renewable's e.g. wind and solar it gets even more ridiculous. It's time drop attempting to limit emissions and look to nature for help. 95-96% of the total CO2 flux is natural. This used up mostly by photosynthesizing flora. Some estimate that up to half of the man made emissions are taken out of the atmosphere this way. It seems to me if we could the ecosystem to utilize 2% more the problem is solved. We have a lot desert on this planet if greened it would do what's necessary. Similarly it has been found that parts of the ocean are nutrient deficient in iron limiting plankton growth. Small additions of iron have been shown to create plankton blooms in the open ocean pulling down CO2 levels locally. Let me say it before the environmentalists do. There maybe unintended consequences. Business as usual or attempting to build 15000 nuclear reactors has consequences too, some unknown.
R. Lee Shearer (June 14, 2014 12:44 PM)
Would Baum ever admit that CO2 is the fundamental building block for life and photosynthesis? That the "pause" in warming is something not predicted nor understood?

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment