When it comes to reducing carbon emissions in the effort to thwart climate change and global warming, we have always been fond of talk and posturing. We are good at it.
There was more pointing with pride last week as the governors of California, Oregon, Washington and the environmental minister of British Columbia signed a kind of international agreement, a joint statement of good intentions called the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy. It has been widely hailed as a bold and decisive document by people prone to hailing such things. It begins with a series of platitudes about linking policy and science and supporting research and international cooperation. It goes on to commit Washington to some serious policy changes, like adopting California-style low-carbon fuel standards, to “catalyze” electric car sales to make them 10 percent of new vehicle purchases in just three years, expand support for biofuels and natural gas for transportation, “scale up” wind, solar and other renewable power, and more and more. It also says “Washington will set binding limits on carbon emissions and deploy market mechanisms to meet those limits,” presumably like California and British Columbia do. It sounds like a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax, a major step either way.
Bold, decisive, and empty. The final paragraph of the widely hailed agreement necessarily states that, “This action plan shall have no legal effect; impose no legally binding obligation enforceable in any court of law or other tribunal of any sort, nor create any funding expectation.” This is sensible, since no governor, no head of state in a constitutional republic can make such serious commitments by mere signature. We have a Legislature. It makes laws. The governor cannot.
With faux treaty signed and photographs taken, Gov. Jay Inslee returns to work with a bipartisan panel of state legislators dubbed the Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup, created by law to investigate and recommend action to meet the state’s ambitious carbon-reduction goals. Those goals were adopted by law in 2008, and they are lofty — reduce the state’s greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, then 25 percent below 1990 level by 2035, then 50 percent below by 2050. The workgroup has and will take public testimony, hire consultants, identify the most cost-effective means, and make recommendations to the Legislature by the end of the year.
There might be something here that goes beyond posturing. We can agree that reducing carbon emissions is a good thing, if … if we can invest our effort where it has genuine effect. Begin by spending money on things that work. Making fuel out of food, subsidizing distilleries or replacing small fractions of power production with expensive and unreliable sources probably should not top the list.
The indications are a cap-and-trade system, or a carbon tax, will produce the greatest emission reduction per dollar. In cap-and-trade government sets a limit on emissions, and the carbon emitters beneath it can sell their variance in a kind of market trading scheme. A carbon tax is more direct, and more honest, and according to economists, likely to work. It also produces revenue for government, instead of trading credits among polluters.
But, it is a tax, and therefore a very hard sell, and those who support it take enormous political risk, and there’s the inevitable referendum, and the economic fallout and worries that Boeing may fly away. Cap-and-trade sounds more free marketish, but it may be just a tax in disguise. The regular people out there pay for it all, either way.
This is serious policy work. Enough posing.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.