March 17, 2007
Taming Fossil Fuels
Each day seems to bring news of another prominent convert to the cause of requiring mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Each day also seems to bring news of technological advances that would make it possible to achieve those reductions without serious economic damage. Put all these glad tidings together, and Congress has all the reasons it needs to move quickly to regulate global warming emissions here at home, thus setting an example for the world.
Last week the chief executives of America’s largest automobile companies — General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and Toyota North America — pledged to support mandatory caps on carbon emissions, as long as the caps covered all sectors of the economy. They delivered their promise to a House committee run by John Dingell — the crusty Michigan Democrat who is another convert to the cause and has taken to describing the global warming threat with phrases like “Hannibal is at the gates.”
Meanwhile, dozens of major institutional investors organized by Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmentalists, will gather in Washington on Monday to offer support for mandatory controls. The group will include Calpers, the huge California state pension fund with a history of making environmentally friendly investments, and Merrill Lynch, whose credentials are less impressive.
The news on the technology side is also good — particularly several recent announcements about coal. The first came from TXU, a huge Texas utility where the bidders have agreed to drop plans to build 11 old-fashioned coal-burning power plants. TXU has now announced that it will build two experimental plants intended to capture carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere. American Electric Power, another large utility, has also announced that it will build a coal-fired plant based on slightly different technology but with the same intended result: capturing carbon.
The importance of these projects cannot be overstated. As a report released Wednesday by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology observed, coal produces more than 30 percent of America’s carbon dioxide emissions. It is also a huge problem in China, where the equivalent of one large coal-fired power plant is being built each week, using antiquated methods. Unless coal can be tamed, the game is essentially lost.
But while technology will play an indispensable role, the lead authors of the M.I.T. report, writing in The Wall Street Journal, argue that the most effective way to reduce emissions is to attach a significant price to carbon emissions, either as a carbon tax or through a cap-and-trade program of the sort now embodied in various legislative proposals in Congress. Forcing people to pay to pollute would do more than any other known incentive to bring new technologies to commercial scale. That is the task before Congress