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For Wintergreen: An Earth Quest.

I think it's only fair I get my biases on the table to begin with. I'm a climate change sceptic. That's not to say I don't think it exists - evidence shows that the climate has gone up and down like a whore's drawers over the past few millennia, but I doubt, firstly, the extent of human activity on it, and secondly, that I can't say I believe the increasingly strident prophecies of doom that emerge from certain aspects of the green movement. Especially Al Gore, who is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most vainglorious man on the planet, but that's a whole other node. I also find the current crop of eco-mentalists to be little more than moral highgrounding, puritanical, misanthropic prigs, but that's also another node.

So then. Emissions trading. I have to say I'm rather bitter that I hadn't thought of it first, because it's a brilliant scam. Whether it's on the national, commercial, or personal level, it's ace because it's got folks queuing up to, quite literally, buy a piece of blue sky. And they do so. What it is, in a nutshell, is where you basically pay someone else to take responsibility for your pollution, however generated. You then go away with a warm, fuzzy feeling that you've done your bit and the planet's going to die approximately five seconds later than it otherwise would have, and the other person goes away with your money, a razor smile, and a chortlement of something akin to "Well done, and you certainly have been!"

That's it.

I suppose I ought to go into a bit more detail about the forms of emissions trading, and how they all operate. Needless to say, I am a fan of none of them, mainly because they all share the fault that they simply make it Someone Else's Problem and don't actually do much, if anything, to reduce CO2 emissions. Also, the constant use of "carbon" to mean "carbon dioxide" is extremely grating. I mean, if cars spat out carbon there'd be a little trail of coal dust behind them at all times...

  • Carbon trading at the international level. This is sometimes called "cap and trade" and was instituted by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The idea is that each signatory to the Protocol has to set themselves a reasonable target to reduce their CO2 emissions to each year. If they do so, they get greenie points, and if they don't, then they have to buy "carbon credits" from the nations that did make the cut. If they exceed the cut, then they can sell their unused CO2 ration to nations that didn't make it. Since nations can set their own targets, they can thus make vast pots of cash out of it. Like Russia did upon signing up to Kyoto. Vladimir Putin deliberately held off on signing the Protocol until his programme of upgrading all the old, inefficient Soviet-era industrial plants with more efficient, less pollutive steel works and coal mines and so forth was underway. He then set only a minor target for Russian emissions to be reduced to, beat it by a country mile, and then ended up with vast quantities of carbon credits on his hands, which he could sell for a profit. Similarly, when the EU instituted a similar cap and trade scheme for its members, we Brits, being a bit too sporting if you ask me, set ourselves a nice, tough target to reach, whereas the Germans deliberately set themselves a target amount of emissions that was higher than that which they were already letting off - or what they were officially letting off, considering how they'd covered every square inch of their land with wind turbines, which are crap, but that's a whole other node. As a result, they then were able to guilt the Brits into forking over for their sins on an alarming scale. So you see, it's all a bit of a scam. Cap and trade could actually reduce pollution if the emissions targets were simply a flat 10% less than what each nation was currently generating, but if it was, nobody would have ratified it. Or they would have done, but then roundly ignored it and told the UN to get knotted.
  • Carbon trading at the national level. Carbon credits at the national level work a bit like the cap and trade scheme under the Kyoto Protocol, except there's no cap and a lot more trade. The concept is the same though. Generally businesses only buy carbon credits and things as a PR exercise or to make their products more appealing to the chump and the hippie - because while they're still capitalist bastards, they're at least performing expiation for their wrongdoings. Which appeals to the puritanical streak in a lot of greenies. And if you don't believe me that people swallow this, why else did that fashion designer who's name I've forgot manage to coin it in in 2006 by flogging people a carbon neutral hemp handbag with "I'm not a plastic bag" on the side. So this scheme doesn't actually do anything to reduce pollution, it merely shuffles it about a bit.
  • Carbon offset. Also known as an indulgence. As soon as the Visa card in the reader beeps, right then the soul to eco-heaven leaps. The idea of these things is that you, Joe Q. Polluter, with your Range Rover and your inexpensive Ryanair package tours and your "screaming shit machines" as Abby O'Reilly, a Guardianista, referred to children in one of her columns, can perform this act of financial penance by paying a sharp-suited salesman or former Vice President a sum of money to go and plant some trees somewhere or to invest in sustainable (read: fucking expensive and ridiculously inefficient) energy sources. The idea then being that your little eco-indiscretions are wiped clean. So when your mates Malcolm and Cressida come round for an organic vegan potluck, they won't be able to sneer at you for owning such a car or having so many offspring. Yeah. The theory is that, by planting a number of trees, the CO2 you've caused to be generated will be absorbed harmlessly, or by building a wind turbine or buying treadle pumps for Third World farmers to use instead of evil, planet-cremating, diesel ones (which might mean that they don't die of thirst), you're helping to avoid the future generation of that much CO2. Except this is a little bit false. Firstly, for a tree to grow to such a point at which it can start absorbing meaningful amounts of CO2 takes quite a while, but your pollution is generated instantly. And secondly wind turbines, solar panels, and so forth... they're all crap. Wind farms generally only produce less than half of their installed capacity due to variability and unpredictability of the wind, and as such, they have to have a more reliable form of electricity generation on standby (in other words, burning coal or oil or gas just to tick over) in case there's no wind at all in order to avoid blackouts. Not to mention the CO2 involved in building them. Ditto with solar arrays - they only work half the time!

I'd write more, but I think more in-depth criticism would require a whole series of nodes.

You may argue that by having this expiation entrenched into our society, it'll raise awareness (Jesus fuck I hate that term) of the need to lower pollution and thus encourage others to pollute less. Well... not really. To my mind, it would be far more logical a solution to the environmental question if we were to think about ways in which we could lower industrial pollution through investment, research, and technological advances than simply by going all Roman Catholic on everyone. For instance, nuclear power. CO2 emission as a result of that are significantly lower than fossil fuel power generation, and modern nuclear reactors such as Flamanville are significantly more efficient and safer than they have been in the past. And while the greenies might crow about Chernobyl, they fail to realise that it was an aged, poorly maintained, lackadaisically managed installation with insufficient safety mechanisms for a reactor of its type. Furthermore, research into nuclear energy may lead to advances such as fusion power and so forth. In fact, such research into non-fossil fuel energy sources will become increasingly necessary on economic grounds in the future as peak oil rears its ugly head, but once again, that's a whole other node.

So that's emissions trading then. Not only does it do precious little to actually lower pollution, but it's almost as big a business as Big Oil - and has an equally formidable propaganda machine (Case in point - Al Gore, superhero and author of An Inconvenient Truth, owns a company that sells carbon offsets). Though I'll be honest with you here. I'm only bitter because I didn't jump on the carbon-trading bandwagon back in 2004 or so when it was starting to roll. Had I done so, by now I would be fat and happy with well-manicured toenails and a firm young girl planted on my face, rather than pissing on the greenies' parade here on E2.


A few addenda I think are necessary here, just to clarify stuff. Solar and wind power have their uses, but neither are particularly effective forms of energy generation, nor economically viable, for reasons that, once again, deserve their own writeup. Surely they have their place, but only as a minor supplementary form of energy production.

I should also emphasise that I'm all in favour of non-fossil fuel energy. It makes economic sense, especially when political instabilities can render dependence on foreign oil a risky strategy. Furthermore, oil and gas is going to peak some time in the next decade or so, and then start to increase in price alarmingly. If we are to continue global energy consumption at current levels, serious research and investment into non-fossil fuel energy must be increased.

As regards the idea of a CO2 tax, I've always been opposed to this because of it resemblance to the poll tax. Think about it. It's okay for better off folks because they'll be able to absorb the bump in their tax bills with comparatively little pain. But for less well off folks, who may not be able to afford organic fair trade comestibles or suchlike, the bump would be greater, comparatively. There's also the rather Big Brother like concerns about how CO2 tax (I refuse to use "carbon" to mean anything gaseous) would be tracked. While applying it as indirect taxation to goods and services like VAT would be one thing, what about on activities, and in particular, on motoring? I recall with extreme distaste one article in The Independent in which the paper took the Government's dithering on black box road tracking as being a poor choice for the environment. Sorry, but no. I don't give a shiny shite if it saves the planet, the State has NO RIGHT to know where I'm driving and when. Similarly, it has no right to know what I'm buying and why.

Furthermore, a CO2 tax would disproportionately affect folks in rural areas. In Britain at least, public transport is not very good outside of London. In fact, it's totally useless in those areas for the most part. Why should those people pay more because public transport's not up to the job? Surely, if we want to dissuade people from using cars, maybe development of railways and buses is more logical? And if we want to dissuade people from taking short haul flights, how about construction of high speed rail? After all, the French TGV system has all but killed off the domestic flight in France...

Also, the day I volunteer for a larger tax bill is the day Satan will be skating to work. But that's because I'm an Evil Capitalist Bastard. :)


This has been a "What's Wrong with Environmentalists?" node.

First in series |||||||||||||||| Earth Hour

Okay, show of hands -- who stopped reading halfway through Hazelnut's writeup? He's against solar and wind power, he's skeptical that global warming is real, he assumes that environmentalists are self-serving yuppies... If you're coming from an environmentalist viewpoint, it's all a little hard to stomach. But as it turns out, he's mostly right.

The first thing you need to know about emissions trading is that it's not for you. Real emissions trading is not targeted at you, and you do not need to go through any sort of agency that claims to balance your carbon production against your carbon credits. If you have money to invest in saving the rainforest, buying energy star products, installing solar power, planting your own garden, or any of a hundred other things you can do to help the environment, then by all means do so! But if all you're doing is cleansing yourself of guilt ("the world may be going down the toilet, but at least it's not my fault!"), then you're out of luck; no good cleanser exists. Emission credit trading is for the big players, companies that don't care about saving the Earth or staying 'in balance', but who just want a good profit.

Emissions trading or 'Cap and Trade' is not a new idea. The first major program of this sort was created in 1990, when the USA modified its Clean Air Act to establish a market based trading system for sulfur dioxide (SO2), in an attempt to limit acid rain. The first auction for SO2 credits took place in 1993. By 2002 SO2 emissions had dropped 40%, and the cost of this reduction was only one tenth as much as industry leaders had projected. This set the stage for emission trading for other pollutants, but it certainly didn't prove we had a fool-proof system for reducing all types of pollution.

Cap and trade type programs work by limiting how much of a given pollutant can be let loose in a given area (usually country-wide) or industry (for example the power industry). Then the right to produce a unit of pollution is sold to the highest bidder. This is a great way to parcel out pollution rights, as it means that the cost of pollution is proportionate to the value of pollution to the producer, and it gives permission to pollute to those who need it the most.

If the government were to simply say "no one can pollute more than X", some polluters would be unable to curb their production, and might have to go out of business. At the same time, other polluters that could easily cut back might not, just because they come in under the maximum allowed amount. Under the cap and trade system those polluters that can easily reduce their output of pollution will do so, and will save money because they don't have to buy pollution credits. Those that can't reduce their output can continue to pollute as long as they pay. The added cost of buying pollution credits will encourage them to upgrade as soon as possible. This works wonderfully in fields where there's variation in the costs associated with polluting.

It is usually a feature of this type of system that as time goes on the amount of emissions credits put up for sale decreases. This keeps the price of the credits high enough to keep polluters looking for ways of reducing emissions, and keeps reducing pollution indefinitely. It is usually not a feature of these systems to try to set the final price of polluting in any relation whatsoever to the cost that pollution imposes on society.

Because the SO2 reduction program was such a raging success, many environmentalists expect that cap and trade systems on other pollutants will also be successful. This is not impossible, but there are some requirements that need to be met before this can be true.

Regulation and Governmental Oversight: Currently most cap and trade systems depend on the self-reporting of polluters. This is an obvious flaw. In addition, cap and trade plans are often heavily influenced by lobbyists from the regulated industries, and are often not kept up at an effective level. The Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) in California is an example of a poorly kept emissions trading market. After nine years of regulating nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide in Southern California it was evaluated by the EPA; they found that it had reduced emissions much less than it should have, due to accounting abuses and emission caps being set much too high -- 60% higher than the actual emissions level. This was a well established governmental program, but a lack of management and effective regulation had rendered it worthless.

Appropriate Targets: Not every pollutant is equally appropriate for a cap and trade program. There has been some debate on whether or not mercury should be regulated by emissions trading; mercury produced by power plants tends to precipitate out of the atmosphere along with the fly ash, affecting the local environment rather then being spread evenly throughout the atmosphere. In 2005 the American EPA passed the Clean Air Mercury Rule, including a cap and trade system for mercury. This has come under attack as producing hot spots of mercury pollution, where power plants released dangerously high levels of mercury into some localities. It is likely that the EPA will move to a system that puts specific caps on the amount of mercury that any plant can produce, without the option of buying additional pollution rights.

Nitrogen oxides and SO2 also tend to have somewhat localized effects, although they are not as concentrated in their effects as mercury. Carbon dioxide is one of the best possible candidates for an international emissions trading market, as the effects of carbon emissions are felt around the globe -- there is no more appropriate target for this sort of market than carbon dioxide.

Economics: The mathematics behind producing a successful emissions trading market are complex, and have to take into account the current production levels, the possible reductions per year, the cost of making these reductions, and (hopefully) how volatile the market changes resulting for the emissions market will be. President Bush refused to sign the Kyoto protocol because he was afraid that it would hurt the American economy, and some of the countries that did sign are finding that they are falling badly behind their goals, while will have economic consequences. Getting an emissions trading market right on the first try is hard enough, but it is nearly impossible when you're working on a global scale. Of course, we've seen similar problems in regulating the housing market, the stock market, and even the supermarket, and no one is talking about scraping those.

Private citizens, or more often, environmental groups, can indeed enter into these emission trading markets. It's common enough for a group to pool its money to buy a pollution credit, and then not use it. This is an effective (if expensive) method of reducing pollution below the government mandated caps. But for this to be an effective strategy, it is necessary for the emissions market to be established and well regulated. If there is no real punishment for those who break emission caps, if the emissions caps are not realistic, or if polluting industries can be outsourced to other parts of the world, then buying credits is a waste of your money. You need to research before you invest! it's true in the stock market, and it's true in the emissions market. If you are 'investing' in clean air or lower carbon emissions, you need to double and triple check what you are doing.

When looking at regulating carbon emissions many environmentalists favor a carbon tax; this has the advantages of being a lot simpler for all concerned, easier to modify to deal with changing circumstances, and harder for companies to manipulate. A carbon tax is also easier to apply across all industries and systems, while carbon credits tend to be applied only to larger pollution sources.


References:
www.epa.gov/airmarkt/cap-trade/docs/ctresults.pdf
http://www.peer.org/news/news_id.php?row_id=200
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regional_Clean_Air_Incentives_Market
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emissions_trading
http://www.carbontax.org/issues/carbon-taxes-vs-cap-and-trade/
http://www.mercuryanswers.org/regulation.htm

Also for Wintergreen: An Earth Quest.

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