In Focus: Now is the time to go to low-carbon energy

May 16, 2014 

Many people respond to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and National Climate Assessment warnings of dire consequences from human-caused global warming with either despair or dismissal. Perhaps they assume that replacing fossil fuel, as the world’s primary energy source will be economically, technically or politically impractical. While such assumptions had some validity a decade or two ago, recent developments in low-carbon energy sources have expanded the world’s energy options. This change is highlighted in the most recent IPCC report, with its focus on mitigating climate change. In that report, the IPCC concludes that “many renewable energy technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions, and a growing number of renewable energy technologies have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale ... renewable energy accounted for over half of the new electricity-generating capacity added globally in 2012.” Similar optimism from The Solutions Project, a renewable energy nonprofit, outlines how the energy infrastructure of each state in the U.S. could be completely transformed to renewable energy by 2050. Nevertheless, to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to quickly transition to low-carbon energy. Further delay narrows our options and significantly boosts the eventual economic and social costs of mitigation. How to begin? Economists across the political spectrum agree that putting a price on fossil-carbon emissions is the best first step. The most promising proposals involve a revenue-neutral fee that is collected at the mine, well-head, or port-of-entry, and then returned to households as dividends. For example, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby proposed that revenue collected be returned in a uniform monthly dividend payment. Initially, the fee would be a modest $15 per ton of carbon. The fee would increase annually by a fixed amount ($10 per ton) until the necessary drop in CO2 emissions is observed. Another revenue-neutral proposal returns the carbon fee collected by reducing taxes. Recent studies for the states of California and Washington show that this approach stimulates slightly more economic growth overall than the fee and dividend approach, while still giving the poorest families reasonable protection. The gradual increase in the fee gives businesses the opportunity to adjust their business models and stimulates investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear energy and emissions mitigating technology, such as carbon capture and sequestration. At the border, carbon-fee-equivalent tariffs and rebates ensure U.S. goods remain competitive at home and abroad. Initially, the dividend would be about $650 per household per year, and grow to as much as $8,700 a year after 23 years. As with businesses, this gradual increase allows families to pay for increased food and fuel costs, home insulation, alternative energy sources (such as solar panels), or a highly fuel-efficient or entirely electric vehicle, for example. The home construction and energy retrofit industries will lead the way in new job creation and economic growth. Regardless of which approach is adopted, our CO2 emissions will drop. In so doing, we will have shifted to a path that reduces the risks outlined in the IPCC and NCA reports and avoids the worst effects of climate change, while stimulating economic growth and innovation. Our congressman, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, could propose legislation to accomplish this before he leaves office. So long as we act soon, there is no need for despair or dismissal. w Jim Amonette is a geochemist working on climate-change mitigation technologies. Steve Ghan is a highly published climate scientist and contributing author to three different IPCC reports. Both volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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