Anik Joshi: Effectively addressing climate change

Thursday, January 31, 2019 - 5:51pm

Environmentally-friendly policies have traditionally been associated with more liberal politicians. This has stayed somewhat consistent — the first hearings on climate change were held by former Rep. Al Gore Jr. in 1976 and today, from much news coverage, it seems that the progressive left is the only group trying to seriously address anthropogenic global warming.

However, this is far from the case. There are a number of policies that can effectively address climate change that do not receive the support that they should from the left. I want to focus on two of these— nuclear energy and carbon capture.

Nuclear energy is a policy that does not have much support because there is a large amount of fear of another nuclear disaster like Fukushima in Japan. However, this is unfounded. As Bill Gates wrote in his end-of-year letter for 2018, “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day. The problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation.”

Nuclear energy is clearly a net positive and one would hope that more plants would be opened. However, this is not happening and nuclear plants are being unnecessarily shuttered. As of 2016, the amount of energy lost by closing five nuclear plants was almost equivalent to all solar energy in the United States. This leaves a gap that must be filled, and what tends to fill it is natural gas and other, dirtier sources of energy. Per the Rhodium Group, “over 75% of the lost generation from at-risk nukes would be replaced by fossil generation, largely from natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plants.” Swapping out a zero-emissions source for natural gas seems foolish and the exact opposite of what those who were interested in actually addressing carbon emissions would do and yet here we are.

Carbon emissions trading is one of the most efficient ways to reduce carbon put into the atmosphere. The way it would work is there would be a set number of carbon credits and they would be distributed among firms. Each would have a certain number of carbon credits — allowing the owner to produce a certain amount of carbon. If a firm was to run out, they would then be allowed to purchase additional credits from those who have not used their credits.

The reason the progressive groups who put together the Green New Deal are opposed to this is that if a company needs to purchase more credits, the cost would probably be passed on to the consumer and they disagree with this. They think that the company alone should have to shoulder the burden. However, this is unfair. If a person is buying something that takes extra carbon to produce, from a fairness standpoint, why should they be exempt from the burden?

The policy that both would have the biggest impact on carbon emissions in the U.S. and has the biggest chance of passing is a carbon tax. In the last Congress, a bipartisan carbon tax bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and former Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. This was similar to the bill introduced in the House, which was also done in a bipartisan manner featuring moderate Republicans and Democrats from all over the country. Per the Washington Examiner, should the House bill become law, the bill's authors say it would “reduce U.S. carbon emissions 45 percent by 2030 compared to 2015 levels, and 80 to 90 percent by 2050, well beyond the pace of the Obama administration’s target under the Paris climate agreement that President Trump rejected.” There is agreement across the spectrum on this — every living chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, every living chair of the Federal Reserve and a number of Nobel Economic laureates signed an open letter in the Wall Street Journal calling for exactly this.

Climate change is happening and the window to do something is closing quickly. There needs to be large-scale decarbonization and two of the main methods of doing so (carbon capture and nuclear energy) are specifically denounced in the Green New Deal which is supposed to be a plan for large-scale decarbonization. Carbon taxes are also not as popular as solar or wind energy. In the 48-page PDF, the phrase “carbon tax” is only mentioned three times and not one of them discusses what a reasonable number would be. Addressing climate change is something that can only be done in a bipartisan manner and I hope that cooler heads prevail over this political dispute.

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.