Hansen Was Right: Cap and Trade Isn't the Solution

james hansen climate change copenhagen boycott photo

Climate change scientist James Hansen plans to boycott the Copenhagen summit in protest of proposed cap and trade plans. Photo by World Development Movement via Flickr.
Guest blogger Cara Smusiak is a journalist and regular contributor to NaturallySavvy.com's Naturally Green section.

The "grandfather of climate change" has decided to boycott next week's climate change summit in Copenhagen--and he even hopes it fails. It might seem like an antithetical position for James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, but his objection is to the cap and trade system being proposed. It's a bold move, but one that will hopefully have an impact because Hansen is quite right about one thing: Cap and trade won't work because it doesn't help solve the root problem.What's Wrong With Cap and Trade?
The cap and trade approach to managing climate change is based on the principle that each country will set emissions limits (a cap), dolling out permits to industry. Companies can then use their limit or sell part or all of their "credits" to other companies, allowing some companies to exceed their emissions limits while maintaining the cap (this is the trade part).

But here's what happens in a cap and trade business model: Big polluting companies are able to buy up lots of credit from smaller, greener companies, allowing a culture of carbon reliance in big business and the energy sector to continue to thrive. (And you better believe the cost of buying those credits will be passed on to the consumer.) While the small companies may use the sale of their credits to offset the increased cost of green technologies, they're small potatoes in the overall picture of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Another issue with the cap and trade system is it relies on setting a cap. But who decides where each country will be capped? What sort of sanctions will result if a country exceeds their emissions cap? And how will companies be sanctioned if they exceed the level of emissions based on their total credits? I'm sure these questions will be debated at Copenhagen, but I can't see the big polluters like the U.S., Canada and China agreeing to the sort of aggressive cap that will make a significant difference--and Al Gore agrees.

Will a Carbon Tax Work?
Hansen has proposed an alternative to cap and trade: A $1 per gallon carbon tax on oil, with that tax rising in the future, Hansen told London's The Times. In Hansen's model, the tax revenue would then be passed on to individuals as a dividend, which could offset increased energy costs.

It's a logical solution, but it will be a hard sell during a recession--just ask Stephane Dion. The former leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, Dion led a doomed election campaign in 2008 on the platform of creating a carbon tax to reduce emissions and promote green energy and technologies. (A man just ahead of his time?) But Canadians weren't buying it, not when the threat of a recession was looming in the shadows. Soon after the dismal election results, Dion stepped down as party leader.

Asking individuals and companies to absorb a carbon tax when many countries are still struggling to emerge from recession would be political suicide, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a leader willing to support such a plan at this time.

But there's one other problem with Hansen's plan: It doesn't address the many other sources of greenhouse gases. In all fairness, Hansen may have used oil as an example in his interview with The Times, but the bottom line is oil is not the only problem.

Oil is not the lone emitter of carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas. There's coal's carbon dioxide emissions. There's the agricultural sector's production of methane, which has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 23, meaning it has 23 times the warming effect as the same amount of carbon dioxide. And those levels don't even approach the GWP of many industrial chemicals: Sulphur hexafluoride, for example, has a GWP of 23,900.

If we want to get serious about global warming, we need to commit to reducing the overall volume of carbon emissions as well as the emissions that have the greatest power to cause warming.

So where does that leave us? Well, I'm inclined to agree with Hansen's suggestion that we wait rather than bungle things up. It would take governments far longer to abandon an ineffective solution than it would to take a little more time to come up with a better game plan. And if you think otherwise, look no further than the Kyoto Accord.

More on the Copenhagen Climate Summit
COP15 Copenhagen Pre-game
BREAKING: Obama to Attend COP15 Climate Summit
The Road to Copenhagen Is Long - Especially When You Walk, Bike, or Hitchhike

Related Content on Treehugger.com