Friday, January 23, 2015

To save our world we need big ideas

To save our world we need ideas big enough to match the massive challenges we face or risk sinking in despair before them. We need aspirations that move beyond a “realism” which offers no real hope but only goes through the motions to present an appearance of hope. 

It is absolutely clear that if humanity does not find ways to come to agreement on deep and dramatic reductions in carbon pollution, our later years will be stormy indeed.  I recently viewed a presentation that illuminated our course.  It was made by Steve Davis of University of California, Irvine to the Fifth Annual Pacific Northwest Climate Conference back in September 2014.  The video is here.

Davis shows that the world is tracking the worst of four climate scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading scientific body on the topic.  It’s called Representative Concentration Path 8.5.  Carbon emissions growth is following that curve, increasing about three percent a year.  See 11.14 minutes into the presentation.  Continued through the century, that spells temperature increases of 4-5° Celsius. See 5.52 minutes. 

That level leads to eventual melting of all polar ice, to 250 more feet of water on the oceans and a world of intense storms, droughts and famines that will leave our children and all our coming generations coping to exist.  Economists foolishly believe they can quantify the consequences of such a world. We should instead listen to historians and anthropologists who can tell us better what happens when the natural fundaments of civilizations are so assaulted. They collapse, as did the Maya and Anasazi of the Southwest under drought, or the Easter Islanders when they deforested their island fully.  Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is a great source of insights on this topic.

I.F. Stone used to call those who planned for winnable nuclear exchanges “crackpot realists.”  There’s a lot of crackpot realism going around today on the slower but just as complete road to hell known as global warming.  At the heights of government, climate negotiators who should know better talk about giving up on the 2° C global warming limit often given as the threshold for climate catastrophe, even as that line appears drawn beyond the real limit.  Presidents and billionaires can claim to be acting on global warming when they are still investing in growing fossil fuel infrastructure and consumption.  Institutions project continuation of business as usual even as the whirlwinds of climate disruption appear on the horizon and move closer.

Can we hope that the incremental changes underway can divert us from the worst case?  Will climate commitments now being made by the United States, China and the European Union move us down to one of the less catastrophic scenarios?  Yes, we can.  But a world heated to 3°C is still a hell world of flood and famine, and one from which we should turn in deep shame.  Leaving this to our children when so many of us enjoy comfortable lives and some hold possession of unbelievable wealth paints us as a generation to be held up as a cautionary tale told around the campfires of the future.  How humans are not to live. 

Let’s go to the fundamental reality, and not avert our eyes from it.  I return to the foundational article that I often quote on this blog, Hansen et al’s December 2013 “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change.’”  Here is what we must understand:

“A cumulative industrial-era limit of ~500 GtC (billion metric tons of carbon) and 100 GtC storage in the biosphere and soil would keep climate close to the Holocene range in which humanity and other species have adopted (the 10,000 or so years since the last ice age).  Cumulative emissions of ~1,000 GtC, associated with 2°C global warming, would spur “slow” feedbacks and eventual warming of 3-4°C with disastrous consequences.”

“Slow feedbacks are important . . .  because their instigation is related to the danger of passing ‘points of no return,’ beyond which irreversible consequences become inevitable, out of humanity’s control.  Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets present the danger of change with consequences that are irreversible on time scales important to society."

“Fossil fuel emissions through 2012 total ~370 GtC.  If subsequent emissions decrease 6%/year additional emissions are ~130GtC for a total ~500 GtC fossil fuel emissions.” 

“. . . keeping global climate close to the Holocene range requires a long-term atmospheric CO2 level of about 350ppm (parts per million) or less . . . If emissions reduction had begun in 2005, reduction at 3.5%/year would have achieved 350 ppm at 2100.  Now (2013) the requirement is at least 6%/year.  Delay of emissions reductions until 2020 requires a reduction rate of 15%/year to achieve 350 ppm in 2100  . . . it makes a huge difference when reductions begin.” (p.10)

“Warming of 1°C relative to 1880-1920 keeps temperature close to the Holocene range, but warming of 2°C . . . could cause major dislocations for civilization.”

“With warming of 0.8°C in the past century, Earth is just emerging from that range, implying we need to restore the planet’s energy balance and curb further warming.”

There is the first big idea – We literally need to stop global warming.  We cannot accept some dream curve that lets us continue with fossil-fueled business as usual and elevates temperatures more than a full degree Celsius above current warming.  We need to start rapid reductions in fossil fuel use right now.  Instead of growing emissions 3% a year we need to begin reducing carbon pollution by more than 6% a year. 

How will we ever do this?  Who can stop China from industrializing with coal, the major factor in global emissions growth?  I do not have an answer.  But as a nation that has by far put up the most carbon pollution into the air, 26% compared to China’s 10.7% (cited in the Hansen article), the United States has the greatest responsibility to take the lead.  We need to move with three further big ideas:

First, we must rapidly convert our energy base to 100% renewable energy, primarily solar and wind, building a smart power grid that acts as energy internet managing variable energy sources while electrifying most of the vehicle fleet.  This is highly possible.  See the Solutions Project page.

Second, we must invest in dramatic increases that multiply energy efficiency several times with efforts that comprehensively transform the built environment, equipment, appliances and vehicles.  This too is highly possible.  Rocky Mountain Institute is working to demonstrate that making energy use 10 times more efficient is practical and profitable.

Third, we must revolutionize farming, forestry and all uses of the land to soak carbon from the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide concentrations have reached 400 ppm and above.  Even as we stop carbon emissions growth we must make allies of plants and soils to bring carbon concentrations back to 350 ppm.  The Northwest Biocarbon Initiative created a great video to illuminate the concept. 

We need big ideas to save our world, ideas that match the challenges we face.  We can no longer pretend there is an acceptable level of global warming far beyond what we have already experienced.  It is time to call out with very loud voices for what we really need, a global energy revolution accompanied by a global land use revolution.  Nothing less will do. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

West Coast climate leadership likely moving to grassroots

The West Coast of North America is home to two globally significant models for carbon pollution limits.  California has the continent’s first carbon cap-and-trade covering the entire economy.  British Columbia charges a carbon tax, and fully recycles the revenues back to citizens via tax reductions and low income credits.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Dec. 17 made a cap-and-trade proposal to the 2015 Legislature. This is part of an effort to close the gap between California and BC, creating a unified West Coast climate policy block along with Oregon. A carbon policy might be sent to the Oregon Legislature in 2016. The effort stems from a commitment by the Pacific Coast Collaborative made up of West Coast states and province.  In 2013 the four leaders of those jurisdictions re-commited to enacting climate policies coastwide.  One idea  behind this "West Coast Agenda" is that solidifying the world’s fifth largest economy around carbon policy will kickstart action at a national level.  The governor's proposal notwitstanding, any policy design adopted in Washington is ultimately more likely to look north to BC than south to California. More on that below.

Overall, it strains belief to imagine anything will spur the U.S. Congress to place limits on carbon pollution soon, let alone action in two of the greenest states in the Union.  Congressional passage would require both houses solidly returned to the Democrats or a policy revolution in the Republican Party (perhaps a “grand bargain” achieved by a President Jeb Bush to cut the deficit using carbon revenues). 

The more likely scenario is that passage of carbon policy by the Northwest states will spur continued bottom-up action in states, provinces and cities across North America.  This is an independently valid rationale for acting here in Cascadia.  Any policy we adopt here will have ramifications beyond the bioregion.  Regional politics is tilting the outcome toward a revenue-neutral carbon tax.   

To understand why, begin with the attitude of most climate-concerned people in Washington and Oregon.  It can be summed up easily – Give me a climate policy, anything that makes a dent.  People understand any climate policy that can be enacted now will fall short of the radical carbon pollution reductions needed to ensure climate stability.  They know that a full response to climate disruption will require a massive national and global agenda to advance clean energy technologies.   What they are seeking at the state level is a stake in the ground to begin the process, something that begins to significantly reduce our own carbon emissions. 

While there is a vociferous debate over cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax among policy wonks, people will set aside their differences and support either if there is a solid chance for enactment.   The sense of urgency to limit carbon pollution trumps arguments over the best way to set those limits.  

At this point two proposals are on the table in Washington state –
Gov. Inslee’s cap-and-trade and a BC-style revenue-neutral carbon tax forwarded by Carbon Washington.     Revenue neutral means all carbon revenues are recycled back to citizens rather than being spent by government. 

The governor prefers the certainly of an emissions-based goal, and would like to line up with the California system.  Only a fixed amount of carbon pollution would be permitted each year.  That amount would decline over time to meet binding state carbon limits.  Polluters would have to secure permits to emit carbon by buying them in an auction.  Polluters who reduce carbon emissions more deeply than required would be able to gain credit for those reductions in a trading market. 

Economists tend to advocate outright taxes on carbon, a price-based policy.  Prices set by law rather than auction send a more predictable signal, thus providing greater certainty for carbon-reducing investments including energy efficiency and renewable energy. The climate grassroots also tends to support carbon taxes because of the vulnerability of carbon trading markets to manipulation much as housing and energy markets have been.   This potential for financial shenanigans is acknowledged by the governor’s own Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce, though cap-and-trade advocates maintain that gaming can be prevented with a properly designed market.

Whatever qualms people might have about cap-and-trade, the governor’s plan is drawing broad support from climate-concerned Washingtonians.  They want to see something enacted.  Give me a climate policy, they say, anything that makes a dent.

That is true even though the Inslee proposal feeds another criticism made by advocates for revenue-neutral systems, that given a new source of revenues politicians will spend it however they please. Anyone who reads my climate policy commentaries knows that I disagree with revenue-neutral schemes, and believe revenues should be spent largely on carbon-reducing investments.   The governor’s plan, though not revenue neutral, does not do this.

The governor would leverage the carbon market to solve long-term deficits in transportation and education funding.  The Washington carbon permits auction is expected to yield around $1 billion annually.  The governor proposes to spend much of this to catch up on a transportation maintenance backlog and a court-mandated improvement in education spending.   Here is the pie chart from Sightline, which has done a good job lining out the proposal.

This shows that the lion’s share of carbon revenues would go to activities that do not directly reduce carbon pollution.  While the transportation piece includes money for low-carbon options such as transit and electric vehicles, most goes for highway upkeep.  The plan bars spending on expanded road capacity but frees up gas tax revenues to do exactly that.  The low-income portion includes $100 million to fund a working families tax credit for the poorest 450,000 families in the state, and affordable housing assistance.  This is meant to balance the impact of higher fuel and utility bills on the bottom end of the income spectrum.  (Though it leaves out many working and middle class families that are also suffering economic stress from long-term income stagnation, creating potential for opponents to wedge off traditional progressive constituencies that might otherwise support climate policy.  The CarbonWA proposal is less vulnerable in this regard.  It offers a similar tax credit plus shaving one-percent off the sales tax.)

Inslee faces a tough uphill slog moving his package through the Legislature.  He can likely secure passage in the Democratic-controlled House even with a diminished majority after the November election.  But failure to flip the Senate back from Republican control, despite major campaign funding by California billionaire Tom Steyer and other high-net worth contributors, guarantees a stony reception in that chamber.  Early reactions from key Senate Republicans have been unfavorable.   Inslee appears to be betting that the urgent need to solve education and transportation funding challenges will move enough Republicans to support his proposal.  But Republicans are even less likely to approve carbon fees on major industries than tax increases on individuals.  Major industries are their campaign contributors.

Despite any concerns over cap-and-trade policy design or spending revenues on roads and general fund obligations, the climate and environmental community has greeted the governor’s plan with enthusiastic support.  This demonstrates a deep hunger for carbon limits of any sort. However, if the governor cannot pull one out of a hat and his package stalls, that same hunger will attach to CarbonWA’s proposal. The momentum created by the campaign for the governor’s cap-and-trade will transmit to CarbonWA’s BC-style carbon tax.

Give me a climate policy.  Anything that makes a dent. 

In March CarbonWA plans to introduce an initiative to the Legislature to enact its proposal.  That sets off a process of signature gathering. CarbonWA intends to put funds into this.  It will not be a total volunteer effort.  So between funding and citizen enthusiasm, there is a realistic possibility that the 250,000-signature target will be reached. If CarbonWA is successful the Legislature in January 2016 will have three options.  Enact the proposal.  Send it to the November ballot.  Or send it to the November ballot with a proposal of its own. 

That could be a cap-and-trade, though the general reaction is that putting such a complex measure before voters is daft.  It could be a carbon tax to fund education much as Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon has proposed.  The prospect of competing initiatives raises concerns, but it would make an interesting debate. 

While I am not as in touch with Oregon politics, safe to say if there is major momentum for a carbon tax north of the river it will resonate south.  As in Washington the Oregon grassroots tilts toward carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Oregon Climate is already building support for a revenue-neutral carbon fee in the Beaver State.

What is clear is that if the Inslee climate package bogs down in the Washington Senate the climate grassroots will not wait for legislative action in some future session (such as 2017 with a more favorable Senate line-up).  The political system has repeatedly failed to deliver meaningful climate policy, whether it was the Washington state carbon cap enacted without teeth in 2008 or a federal climate bill that didn’t make it at all in 2010. In 2015 people are out of patience.  If the system fails to deliver this time citizens will take climate leadership into their own hands. Grassroots activists will go to the streets, gather signatures and seek a 2016 ballot spot. 

As the only climate policy game in town this will represent a fait accompli forcing the hand of political leaders, major funders and professional advocacy groups. They will have to decide whether to support the measure or risk letting a major climate policy initiative fail, either by not gathering enough signatures in 2015 or votes in 2016.  Have no doubt that fossil fuel interests will weigh in heavily against the measure.  They spent a mind-boggling $721 million in the 2014 election cycle.

Gov. Inslee is making a bet that the need to fund education and transportation is so compelling that he can swing Republican support to a carbon pollution cap. He may be able to do this, and more power to him if he can.  But if he can’t, leadership and momentum move from Olympia to the grassroots, to CarbonWA’s BC-style carbon tax.  If it does I’ll be right there, any quibbles over revenue-neutral notwithstanding.

Give me a climate policy.  Anything that makes a dent.