See the Tabbed Pages for links to video tutorials, and a linked list of post titles grouped by topic.

This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Enact a Carbon Tax, Not a Cap-and-Trade System

Summary.  The worldwide need to abate emissions of greenhouse gases is becoming more important with every passing year.  Nevertheless, the U. S. has never enacted federal legislation that would limit its emissions.   

This post describes a proposal for a cap-and-trade market mechanism to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the U. S., presented in a recent op-ed article.  Then cap-and-trade is compared with a direct tax or fee on carbon fuels. 

It is concluded that a carbon tax or fee is far more advantageous than a cap-and-trade mechanism, for its effectiveness, efficiency and freedom from the need to create a new bureaucracy to oversee its operation.  The revenues generated can be applied in a variety of ways that would be politically acceptable.  Adoption of a carbon tax or fee in the U. S. is strongly recommended. 

Introduction.  The nations of the world are currently on a path of emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs) that risks putting humanity in great climatic peril by the end of this century.  A principal GHG is carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted when we burn fossil fuels for energy.  Annual rates of emission while doing “business as usual” (which assumes no meaningful reductions) or only modest rate reductions lead to unacceptably high levels of total accumulated atmospheric GHGs.  It is this accumulated total (not the annual emissions rate) that determines the extent of global warming that we experience.  Thus, although it may sound virtuous to reduce annual emission rates, the new GHGs that are still emitted continue to accumulate to ever higher levels.  Only global emission rates approaching zero suffice to stabilize the global atmospheric GHG burden, leading to stabilization of global average temperature at some value higher than we have today.

The threat that GHGs posed to the world’s climate was already recognized in the 1990’s, and led to the United Nations-sponsored Kyoto Protocol that limits emissions among developed countries of the world. (Please find a Summary of Historical Developments in an earlier post.)  The U. S. never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and has failed to pass federal legislation to limit GHG emissions on at least two more recent occasions (see the Summary).

Federal policy to lower GHG emissions can rely on market-driven mechanisms, among others.  One such mechanism, a direct fee imposed on fossil fuels based on the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy obtained, has been supported by many prominent commentators and experts.  Among these, most recently, are four Administrators of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appointed by Republican (i.e. the more conservative of the two American political parties) presidents (see the previous post). 

A second market approach is the cap-and-trade system.  Here we discuss a recent op-ed article calling for creation of a federal cap-and-trade mechanism.

Proposal to enact a federal cap-and-trade regime.  The New York Times published an op-ed article by Dirk Forrister (President and CEO of the International Emissions Trading Association) and Paul Bledsoe (Senior Fellow, Climate & Energy Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States) promoting a national cap-and-trade program for the U. S.  “Cap-and-trade” refers to imposing an upper limit (the “cap”) to the amount of GHGs, especially CO2, that a physical facility can emit in a year, and trading of emission allowances between efficient facilities left with excess allowances and inefficient facilities needing extra allowances.  Caps are to be lowered year by year to enforce increased efficiency and lower overall emissions.  The authors extol this market mechanism as being “widely recognized as a cheaper way to lower emissions. [Because President Obama has had to use a regulatory mechanism instead, c]onsumers will pay a higher price for electricity as a consequence.”

The authors cite China’s pilot cap-and-trade market being set up in the city of Shenzhen as an example.  It will cover over 800 individual emission sources, both industrial facilities and municipal buildings, that are responsible for 40% of Shenzhen’s emissions.  The authors state that six more pilot projects are planned in China in the coming year.  They state that currently 20% of GHG emissions around the world occur in carbon pricing systems (they do not indicate whether only cap-and-trade mechanisms are used). 

The op-ed dismisses enactment of a direct carbon tax by surmising, without supporting evidence, that “the tax would probably be small and would not guarantee the reduction in emissions needed.”  The example presented further below rebuts this contention.  Nevertheless, Forrister and Bledsoe correctly state that revenues obtained either from a tax or from a market mechanism could be rebated to taxpayers or used to offset other taxes; still other uses for this new revenue have been proposed by other analysts.  They provide a useful summary of the rancorous political environment in the U. S. Congress that has prevented past attempts to enact cap-and-trade legislation from succeeding. 


We need to lower GHG emissions.  The need to abate GHG emissions becomes more apparent with each passing day.  Man-made increases in GHG concentrations in our planet’s atmosphere are directly responsible for increased long-term global average temperature.  Higher temperature contributes to the severity and frequency of extreme climate and weather events that are harmful to human society, inflicting major costs that, in most countries, are borne by the taxpaying public.  Forrister and Bledsoe state “[a]s the costs of adaptation rise… inaction will become an untenable political position.”

A carbon fee or tax.  The previous post presents the case offered by four Republican former EPA administrators for a fee imposed directly on fossil fuels.  (A carbon fee or tax can be considered primarily a way of reducing demand for fossil fuels.)  Here the alternative, a cap-and-trade market which operates by limiting the amount of emissions, and therefore of the fuel use that generates them, is proposed.  (Cap-and-trade may be considered to operate primarily by limiting the supply of fuel.)  A direct fee or tax on fossil fuels is far more efficient and effective in limiting GHG emissions than is cap-and-trade. 

A carbon tax is legislated at the outset and remains in effect indefinitely.  (Only politically motivated tinkering in later years would lead to changes in the size of the tax.)  Importantly, a carbon tax can be imposed on all fossil fuels at the point of extraction from the earth.  For this reason a carbon tax easily covers the entire fossil fuel-based energy economy, including fuel for transportation.  Typically it would start at a low, relatively painless level, and grow in size year by year until it reaches a significant amount.  The added cost of fuel serves as an economic deterrent to its use.  The fee motivates consumers to adopt energy-efficiency and to use renewable energy.

A carbon tax is simple to administer.  It has led, for example, to striking increases in efficiency and decreases in fuel use when it is applied as a tax on gasoline fuel for motor vehicles. The graphic below

Source: New York Times presenting data from the U. S. Department of Energy and the World Bank;

shows that per capita use of fuel for driving decreases as the size of the gas tax increases.  The U. S. has the lowest gas tax correlated with the highest amount of fuel used per capita. In Great Britain, on the other hand, the gas tax is about US$3.95 per U. S. gallon and very low fuel use per capita (but it is seen from the graphic that a similar increase in efficiency can be obtained for as low as about US$2.20 per U. S. gallon).

A cap-and-trade market, on the other hand, requires establishment of cumbersome new bureaucracies to operate.  It further needs to create a new trading market, usually including an auction facility, to buy and sell emission allowances.  Another bureaucracy is needed to work with “offsets”, the buying or selling of emission allowances based on emission credits beyond the actual jurisdiction of the region or nation involved.  Like any commodity market, this one is susceptible to abuse and manipulation by third party traders seeking profits but who are not directly connected with the energy economy.

Consider the example of Shenzhen, cited in the op-ed of Forrister and Bledsoe.  For each of the more than 800 facilities covered, officials must evaluate, and then verify, the GHGs emitted annually in order to be able to issue the correct number of emission allowances.  (Note that there is an incentive for a facility to overstate emissions in order to earn more allowances.)   Officials must account for allowances returned at the end of the year, and must verify that the current emission level for each facility agrees with the number of returned allowances.  Then in each succeeding year the allowances for each facility are reduced, and the cycle of measuring and verifying emissions, and matching those results with allowances, must be repeated.  Third party speculators, who are neither energy officials nor facility representatives, can enter the market for allowances and trade them in search of profit (or garnering losses) without regard for the underlying energy policy, potentially leading to windfalls or market crashes.

In addition, it may be difficult to work out a way to issue allowances for transportation fuel, since vehicles are not fixed emission sources, and are far more numerous than fixed facilities.

The European Union’s cap-and-trade market.  An example of a cap-and-trade regime which failed is found with the Emissions Trading System (ETS) of the European Union (EU).  The ETS was set up as the EU entered under the Kyoto Protocol in 2005.  It covers at least 11,000 individual emission sources across the EU.  At the outset, allowances were determined by each EU nation independently.  Allowances were granted, in certain cases, in excess of need or previous national experience.  The auction market in the initial years established early prices as high as almost €30 per tonne of CO2 equivalents (tonne, a metric ton) in the middle of 2006, which then fell, for a variety of reasons including the onset of the recession, to about €0/tonne one year later.  As the allocation mechanism improved prices recovered, but by 2012 they were again low, less than €4/tonne, because recessionary conditions across the EU led to a surplus of available allowances.  The EU Parliament voted in April 2013 not to lower the number of allowances, thus essentially generating a “potential death blow” to the ETS.  The Parliament relented a few months later.  This example shows how cap-and-trade is susceptible to political interference, preventing attainment of its objectives. 

(Update Aug. 22, 2013) California’s cap-and-trade program also exemplifies the bureaucratic and operational difficulties identified above.  In its fourth quarterly auction of allowances, the price for the largest emitters was US$12.22 per metric ton of CO2-equivalent, about 12.7% lower than the previous sale.  An impression of the complex bureaucracy that administers the program may be seen in the state’s Quarterly Auction 4 Summary Results Report.  It refers to setting auction pricing and verifying eligibility of participants in the auction. 

“ARB staff and the Market Monitor carefully evaluated the bids, and determined that the auction process and procedures complied with the requirements of the Cap-and-Trade Regulation….

‘The Market Monitor found that the auction was cleared consistent with the auction clearing rules…[and] confirmed the clearing price and clearing quantities….’”

This document provides further details of the auction that reflect the intensive administrative effort needed to conduct it. 

California’s Cap-and-Trade system covers 359 individual entities whose emissions are higher than the cutoff of 25,000 metric tons per year.  (Link here and then click on the link “Updated List of Covered Entities”.)  Emissions and allowances for each must be monitored and verified.


It is highly recommended that the U. S. enact a national tax on the carbon in fossil fuels, beginning at a low level and increasing annually.  Its operation is highly effective and very efficient.  It is easily extended to include the entire fossil fuel economy in its operation.  It readily constrains the use fossil fuels by reducing demand on the part of consumers.

Cap-and-trade is shown here to be cumbersome, requiring an extensive bureaucracy operating throughout the lifetime of such a program.  The ETS of the EU has been ineffective.  Cap-and-trade is susceptible of abuse and likely would not cover the transportation segment of the energy economy.

With either mechanism, the revenues obtained can be rebated to taxpayers, or can be used to offset other taxes.  Other possible uses include reducing the national debt or supporting research, development and deployment of innovative renewable energy technologies.  Allocating the funds in ways such as these should ease the political barriers to enactment in the U. S.

© 2013 Henry Auer

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Four Republicans Propose a Fee on U. S. Carbon Sources

Summary.  Four former Administrators of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, all of whom served under Republican presidents, are urging the members of the U. S. Congress to overcome partisan divisions and pass meaningful legislation to combat global warming.  They state that science clearly shows the planet is warming, and point out that further inaction is harmful because the window of time remaining for action is shrinking.  They observe that President Obama’s Climate Action Plan is noteworthy and should be endorsed by the Congress.  Additionally they propose a fee on use of carbon fuels as an effective means for abating the rate of emissions and consequent worsening of global warming.  Here, we present an example of the effectiveness of a tax on gasoline fuel in reducing consumption.

Carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, once emitted, and remains for very long times without being removed by natural processes or human technology.  Therefore it is necessary to reduce the rate of emissions in order to keep the accumulated level as low as possible, and limit the harms wrought by excessive global warming.  The fee on carbon use proposed by the Administrators goes a long way to accomplishing this goal.


Introduction.  Over the past few decades the United States has never enacted a legislated national energy policy to combat global warming.  Since the late 1990’s plans operating around the world at the international, multinational and national levels to curb the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) have been implemented.  Prominent among these was the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement among industrialized countries negotiated under the United Nations.  These programs have been undertaken recognizing that human activity is responsible for the accumulation of GHGs and that the world’s nations must work together to mitigate the rate of emissions and the total accumulated level of GHGs in the atmosphere.  The U. S. Senate, in contrast, rejected American participation in the Kyoto Protocol.  Only in recent years have certain American states, individually or by interstate regional agreements, embarked on policies to reduce GHG emission rates.  (Please find a Summary of Historical Developments in the previous post.)

In the absence of Congressional action, President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan in June 2013.  It contains a large number of specific initiatives grouped as cutting carbon pollution, protecting the country from the impacts of global warming, and working internationally to fight global warming.  Some of the policies can be implemented by executive action, whereas others require budgetary action by the Congress.

This post describes a proposal for a fee on carbon sources set forth by four prominent Republicans (i.e., members of the more conservative of the two U. S. political parties) with strong credentials in setting environmental policy.

Four Republicans, all former Administrators of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), propose a fee on carbon-containing sources of energy.  They all were appointed by Republican presidents.  Their proposal appeared in the New York Times on August 2, 2013.  The former Administrators are William D. Ruckelshaus, who served from the founding of the EPA in 1970 under Republican President Richard Nixon to 1973, and again from 1983 to 1985; Lee M. Thomas, who served from 1985 to 1989; William K. Reilly, who served from 1989 to 1993; and Christine Todd Whitman, who served from 2001 to 2003.

The Administrators write:

“…we have a message that transcends political affiliation: the United States must move now on substantive steps to curb climate change, at home and internationally.

“There is no longer any credible scientific debate about the basic facts: our world continues to warm….

“The costs of inaction are undeniable. The lines of scientific evidence grow only stronger and more numerous. And the window of time remaining to act is growing smaller: delay could mean that warming becomes ‘locked in.’

“…President Obama’s June climate action plan lays out achievable actions that would deliver real progress….

“Rather than argue against his proposals, our leaders in Congress should endorse them and start the overdue debate about what bigger steps are needed and how to achieve them — domestically and internationally.”

The Administrators declare that the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to use market-based approaches, such as a fee on carbon, to provide the incentives to migrate away from use of carbon-based fuels.  As alluded to in the quotes above, they recognize that the present political climate in the U. S. Congress makes this an unrealistic policy to promote.  They support the administrative and legislative policies promoted by President Obama in his energy policy speech as a meaningful strategy in the absence of Congressional action.

The Administrators conclude

“More will be required…we must continue efforts to reduce the climate-altering pollutants that threaten our planet. The only uncertainty about our warming world is how bad the changes will get, and how soon. What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.”


It is highly significant in the U. S. policy setting that four Republican Administrators of the EPA, serving under the Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, have come together to urge taking strong legislative action to combat global warming.  They understand the indisputable scientific imperative that global warming constitutes a major threat to the wellbeing of the planet.  They recognize the need to “transcend” political differences.  They urge immediate action because “the window of time remaining to act is growing smaller”.   Finally, they realize that President Obama’s announced policy, while making worthy steps to combat global warming, still requires the forceful action that a legislated policy, such as a fee on carbon, would generate.

Climate scientists have shown incontrovertibly that a) atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), have been rapidly increasing since the start of the industrial revolution; b) the growth in CO2 levels is due to mankind’s burning of fossil fuels for energy; and c) the greenhouse effect from these greenhouse gases produces increases in the long-term global average temperature, as well as drastic decreases in the number of extreme cold days coupled with profound increases in the number of extreme hot days.  These temperature extremes lead to extreme weather and climate events that are harmful to those who are affected by them.

CO2 is a waste product whose costs are not reflected in the purchase price that we pay when we use fossil fuels.  Our purchases compensate fuel companies for the costs involved in extracting and marketing fuels, and include profit accruing to them for their efforts.  But the costs of dealing with its waste, namely CO2, are not included; the cost of this waste constitutes an “externality” that fuel companies do not charge us for.  On the other hand, there are examples in our daily life where we, the consumers, are directly charged for the costs of waste that we generate.  These include garbage removal and disposal, and waste water treatment.  Our use of fossil fuels should follow the models given by examples such as these.  A fee on carbon use would accomplish this.

Global warming induces extremes of weather and climate that adversely affect human wellbeing and socioeconomic state as a result of the calamities that result.  The Administrators point out that at a time in the near future which cannot be predicted with certainty, the Earth’s climate system could reach a point at which greenhouse warming creates reinforcing effects that promote even more warming.  This underlies their caution that warming could become “locked in”.  In addition, climate scientists point out that the longer we wait to begin meaningful abatement measures, the more intensive, and expensive, such measures will necessarily be to make up for lost opportunities.

In reaction to such unpredictable events governments and other social structures are called on to spend vast amounts of money to repair damage and restore facilities.  They also react by undertaking extensive preventive infrastructure projects that were unforeseen before devastation struck.  It thus makes economic and sociological sense to minimize the effects of global warming by combating its causes, i.e., by migrating away from use of fossil fuels as fast as possible.
The Administrators recommend a market-based mechanism for accomplishing this, and suggest a fee on use of carbon fuels for this purpose.  A carbon fee is highly efficient and effective in reducing use of fossil fuels.  It is simple to administer, and leads, for example, to striking increases in efficiency and decreases in fuel use when it is applied as a tax on gasoline fuel for motor vehicles. The graphic below
Sources: New York Times presenting data from the U. S. Department of Energy and the World Bank;

shows that per capita use of fuel for driving decreases as the size of the gas tax increases.  The U. S. has the lowest gas tax correlated with the highest amount of fuel used per capita. In Great Britain, on the other hand, the gas tax is about US$3.95 per U. S. gallon (but it is seen from the graphic that a similar increase in efficiency can be obtained at a much lower tax level of about US$2.20 per U. S. gallon).  Ford, the American car maker, sells a model of its compact Focus there whose efficiency is 72 miles per U. S. gallon.  A Focus model sold in the U. S. gets only 33 miles per U. S. gallon.  


Former EPA Administrators Ruckelshaus, Thomas, Reilly and Whitman all served in the administrations of Republican presidents.  They have come together to urge the members of the U. S. Congress to move beyond partisan posturing and unite behind meaningful legislation to combat global warming.  They point out that the science underlying global warming is incontrovertible, that the time for significant action is shortening, and that legislative action is required, for example to set up a fee for use of fossil fuels.  Their sentiments are reasoned and convincing, and should be acted upon as soon as possible. 

The status of the global climate worsens with each day of inaction.  That loss cannot be recovered at a later date because CO2 emissions, on the time scale in question, remain in the atmosphere and accumulate higher and higher.  We in the U. S., independently and in concert with other major greenhouse gas emitters, must act as soon as possible to keep the accumulated CO2 level as low as possible going forward.

© 2013 Henry Auer