Jeffrey Sachs Tells TreeHugger: Forget Carbon Caps: We Need Clean Coal and Nuclear (Video)


R&D;, not Cap and Trade
Superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs thinks clean coal and nuclear power -- not an emphasis on greenhouse gas caps -- are the most powerful ways to address the dangers of climate change.

Sachs's controversial position isn't new (see our interview with him last year). But in a talk at the Asia Society on Monday evening, Sachs expressed deep pessimism about the way that China and the U.S. -- the world's two largest emitters -- are tackling emissions now, and reiterated that it would be foolish to imagine that either country would stop using coal soon. "Either we figure out to live with coal, or we figure out how to live with climate change," he said. "And the latter will not be pretty."

After his talk, I asked him to elaborate. See the video after the jump.
Forget Cap-and-Trade or a Carbon Tax
Sachs's big point: The debate over cap-and-trade, the clamoring for a carbon tax, and the bickering over greenhouse gas targets are distracting from serious efforts at advancing technological and policy solutions.

"What I want is more plan that says quantatively how do we achieve our targets," Sachs told TreeHugger.

If we say 50 percent by 2020, I want people to know what is a realistic way for that to be achieved. What does it mean in terms of the auto sector, what does it mean in terms of housing, what does it mean in terms of the power sector.

Sachs, a special advisor to the UN Secretary General, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and Bono pal, has already thrown his support behind a carbon tax rather than cap-and-trade. The latter, he told Reuters last year, would involve "a lot of people engineer[ing] financial instruments for carbon when there are much more direct ways to do this."

Lately, we have pointed out the heavy payouts to the coal industry for clean coal "administrative expenses" tucked into the Waxman-Markey before Congress, as well as the potential that the bill's complex cap-and-trade approach might actually lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions.

Forget Targets; Time for Action
Talking about aspirations (ie, targets) sounds great, Sachs says. And emissions targets are the reason that people like Paul Krugman have backed cap-and-trade over other approaches.

But cap and trade doesn't necessarily guarantee that we'll meet targets, says Sachs, and it doesn't necessarily boost new clean technology either. More important, he argues, is planning and action. He tells us,

Simply setting a target will be setting us up for disappointment. And simply believing that cap-and-trade will be sufficient to accomplish these goals I think is a mistake. When you have major technologies that need to be tested, demonstrated, when you have land use that needs to be changed, when you need to develop a new kind of power grid, those will not be solved by cap-and-trade alone.

Sachs wants "debate on issues that are quite controversial," like nuclear power and carbon capture.

His goal? "A mix of new energy-reduction technologies, some using renewables, some a large scale use of nuclear power" and "truly clean coal," he said. "It's not a happy thought but a reality in terms of carbon accounting."

He's Not Alone
The idea that technological R&D;, not a cap-and-trade or carbon tax system, would be the best solution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions is one that environmental contrarians Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger recently put forward in an article for Yale Environment 360.

Targets mean nothing if we can't get there, and they argue that neither a market nor tax approach to pricing carbon will help us do that. "No government in the world so far has been willing to establish and sustain a high price on carbon," the economists write.

Instead, we need to use public spending to bring down the costs of clean energy technologies, they argue, a tactic that would not only make it easier to achieve lower emissions in the U.S., for instance, but in a developing country like China, where such technologies could be manufactured and tested.

A clean technology-based approach might also turn the fight over emissions -- one that has been playing out in advance of talks in Copenhagen -- into a cooperative effort between developed and developing countries.

In a talk this week, U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern indicated that technology transfer to China was a sine qua non in ongoing discussions. "I don't think there is any question that the developed countries are going to have to provide resources to many countries in the developing world," he said at the Center for American Progress.

But Stern, who is in China for further talks, reiterated the importance of emissions limits and the potential need to lobby them for years to come:

We need to recognize that if we aren't careful, we may spend the next few years pushing China to do more, but will then spend all the years after that chasing them, as they hurtle profitably down the road to the low-carbon transformation.

But Sachs is not hopeful about the West's current proscriptive approach to China. "If the rich say to the poor, you don't have to be like us, it doesn't look very credible."

"Pathetic" We Haven't Made Carbon Capture Work

Clean coal may be anathema to many in the environmental community, but Sachs is adamant about it's importance.

I find it shocking that it would be stigmatized. The world is going to use a tremendous amount of coal, whether the environmental world wants it to or not.

To just dismiss it doesn't mean that countries are going to stop using coal -- it just means we're dismissing one of our best options.

Despite heavy promises from the coal industry and talk of developing the technology in the West and in China, Sachs acknowledged that no clean coal plant exists. In his talk, he placed blame squarely on the previous U.S. administration.

"In the time it took Kennedy and Johnson to send a man to the moon, [the previous government] couldn't build one power plant.

That is, to use a technical term, pathetic."

But that clean coal doesn't yet exist shouldn't count against it, he said. And "carbon capture better work, because they [China] are not going to stop using coal."

Otherwise, he said, "we're in such a big mess that we're not going to get out of [climate change] without some disasters."

Watch Sachs's lecture at the Asia Society.

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Jeffrey Sachs Tells TreeHugger: Forget Carbon Caps: We Need Clean Coal and Nuclear (Video)
Sachs's controversial position isn't new