AT the international climate talks in Copenhagen, President Obama is expected to announce that the United States wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to about 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. But at the heart of his plan is cap and trade, a market-based approach that has been widely praised but does little to slow global warming or reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It merely allows polluters and Wall Street traders to fleece the public out of billions of dollars.
Supporters of cap and trade point to the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that capped sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-burning power plants — the main pollutants in acid rain — at levels below what they were in 1980. This legislation allowed power plants that reduced emissions to levels below the cap to sell the credit for these excess reductions to other utilities whose emissions were too high, thus giving plant owners a financial incentive to cut back their pollution. Sulfur emissions have been reduced by 43 percent in the two decades since. Great success? Hardly.
Because cap and trade is enforced through the selling and trading of permits, it actually perpetuates the pollution it is supposed to eliminate. If every polluter’s emissions fell below the incrementally lowered cap, then the price of pollution credits would collapse and the economic rationale to keep reducing pollution would disappear.
Worse yet, polluters’ lobbyists ensured that the clean air amendments allowed existing power plants to be “grandfathered,” avoiding many pollution regulations. These old plants would soon be retired anyway, the utilities claimed. That’s hardly been the case: Two-thirds of today’s coal-fired power plants were constructed before 1975.
Cap and trade also did little to improve public health. Coal emissions are still significant contributing factors in four of the five leading causes of mortality in the United States — and mercury, arsenic and various coal pollutants also cause birth defects, asthma and other ailments.
Yet cap-and-trade schemes are still being pursued in Copenhagen and Washington. (Though I head the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, I’m speaking only for myself.)
To compound matters, the Congressional carbon cap would also encourage “offsets” — alternatives to emission reductions, like planting trees on degraded land or avoiding deforestation in Brazil. Caps would be raised by the offset amount, even if such offsets are imaginary or unverifiable. Stopping deforestation in one area does not reduce demand for lumber or food-growing land, so deforestation simply moves elsewhere.
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