Edwards on global warming

John Edwards has come out with an energy plan, once again getting the jump on Clinton and Obama in the policy arena. (Clinton and Obama have kept their lead in media coverage, mainly because they're ahead in the media coverage, altho Edwards got a boost because his wife has cancer. As the Los Angeles Times put it, Edwards's appearance in San Francisco to call for a moratorium on coal-fired power plants that are not equipped with carbon capture technology saw "a press turnout that would have been unthinkable if all he had to talk about were carbon dioxide emissions." Because we're only talking about the future of all life on the planet here. What could that amount to in comparison with a real human interest story?)

As a senator, Edwards was pretty good on the environment. He started off not so good, but proved himself fairly responsive to the environmental lobby. The rhetoric I've heard from him this year has also been a lot better than Obama and Clinton, who offer magical solutions to global warming thru research spending and ethanol. Edwards, too, supports the ethanol boondoggle, but he's also talking about real sacrifices that have to be made.

Let's take his energy plan piece by piece (the full proposal has far more details than I will cover here):

Capping greenhouse gas pollution starting in 2010 with a cap-and-trade system, and reducing it by 15 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, as the latest science says is needed to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

This is consistent with the best plan under consideration in the Senate, the Sanders-Boxer bill. In contrast, Obama has lent his name to the McCain-Lieberman alternative, which would institute a less stringent cap-and-trade system, thus meeting the demands of business for the predictability of a national emissions policy but with the smallest possible emissions reductions. (This article does a good job explaining the competing bills.) I don't know Clinton's position on global warming - she doesn't even bother with an issues section on her website.

Leading the world to a new climate treaty that commits other countries—including developing nations—to reduce their pollution. Edwards will insist that developing countries join us in this effort, offering to share new clean energy technology and, if necessary, using trade agreements to require binding greenhouse reductions.

Whether this is a good idea would depend entirely on how it was implemented. Edwards acknowledges that America's outsize emissions must be addressed before calling on poorer countries to reduce their own. And he's right that poor countries, especially China and India, must be included in global emissions reductions. Edwards also proposes the right way to do it: use American aid to make cleaner industrialization possible. The question is whether Edwards is willing to offer enough aid to get the poor countries on board.

This is not just important for global warming, it's also a central development issue. The rich countries, whose wealth has in large part been won thru the exploitation and repression of the poor countries, have a responsibility to help those countries industrialize and decrease global inequality. To make that process environmentally sustainable, the rich countries will not only have to give large amounts of clean technology aid to the poor countries, they will also have to substantially reduce their own consumption. Is Edwards willing to do this? His American supremacist foreign policy makes me skeptical. But in comparison to Clinton and Obama, at least he's more willing to reign in American consumption.

Creating a New Energy Economy Fund by auctioning off $10 billion in greenhouse pollution permits and repealing subsidies for big oil companies. The fund will support U.S. research and development in energy technology, help entrepreneurs start new businesses, invest in new carbon-capture and efficient automobile technology and help Americans conserve energy.

Proposals to fund research are universal among the Democratic candidates. The difference in Edwards's proposal is his plan to auction off pollution permits. If and when Clinton and Obama come out with concrete plans, carefully check to see how they will distribute the permits. If the permits are handed out rather than sold, it amounts to a huge giveaway for the corporations who receive them. The Edwards plan would sell some of the permits but give away others. It's rather vague who would have to pay and who wouldn't. We'll have to wait for other candidates' plans to compare, but I don't expect them to be better.

If a Democrat is elected, it will also be important to watch how these research funds are distributed, lest they become corporate welfare slush funds. Both Edwards and Obama have already proposed giving the car companies huge handouts in exchange for making their vehicles less polluting. That is ridiculous. We already give the car companies huge subsidies by building roads, preserving cheap oil supplies, and cleaning up the pollution they create. The government should be doing nothing more to make cars cheap.

Meeting the demand for more electricity through efficiency for the next decade, instead of producing more electricity.

This section contains a number of unspectacular but solid policy reforms to make electricity generation more efficient, including decoupling electricity utilities' profits from the amount of electricity they sell and expanding programs to upgrade the efficiency of buildings and appliances.

Overall, the Edwards plan is ambitious and rests on largely good policy. There are some bad ideas tho: encouraging corn-based ethanol, subsidies to the car companies; and there are many proposals that look promising but could go bad if they're not implemented right.

The biggest hole in the plan has to do with cars. Edwards denies the need to substantially reduce our dependence on cars: "everyone should be able to drive the car, truck or SUV of their choice". In the short term, perhaps big increases in vehicle efficiency and a widespread switch to hybrids would reduce car emissions enough (altho even these changes seem unlikely as long as gas remains so cheap). But this solution only works as long as a large majority of the world's population is mired in poverty and consumes a small fraction of what most Americans do. Giving everyone in the world an equal opportunity to consume means those of us consuming the most (especially Americans but also Europeans, Japanese, South Koreans, and an increasing number of Chinese) will have to significantly cut back. We should start moving now toward cities based on public transit, biking, and walking. The federal government would have to play a big role in this transformation, since it funds most expansions in public transit and because it doles out billions and billions of dollars in highway funds that should be shifted to transit. So it's pretty disappointing to find that the Edwards plan doesn't mention pubic transit once.

Disappointing as it is, I expect far less from the Clinton and Obama plans, if they ever come out with any. Global warming is a hugely important issue, and Edwards is the only viable candidate who is facing it head-on.


robyn said...


Jake said...

yeah, so?

Ron Steenblik said...


You say, there are some bad ideas in Edwards' energy plan, such as encouraging corn-based ethanol. I agree. But it needs to be pointed out WHY it is a bad idea.

Let's be specific. He envisages the nation producing 65 billion gallons of ethanol by 2025, but he offers no further information on how he plans to reach that goal. Presumably, he would maintain the current subsidies, if not create new ones.

But consider the cost to the U.S. Treasury of producing that amount of ethanol in the presence of the main subsidy currently provided to the industry, the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC). This pays blenders $0.51 for every gallon of pure ethanol they blend with gasoline.

Assuming that 7 billion gallons of ethanol will be consumed in the USA this year, and that production grows linearly (exponential growth would get us to 65 billion gallons a year even sooner), the cumulative cost can be easily calculated:

19 years x (7 billion gallons + [65-7 billion gallons]/2) x $0.51/gallon = $348.8 billion

If the goal is to reduce petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions, surely there are policies that are more cost-effective than that.

Ron Steenblik
Global Subsidies Initiative

Patrick said...

The point is, ethanol is a loser on both counts - environmental and economic. The only way in which it's a winner is politically, not unlike other pork. Everybody in politics knows all the arguments against ethanol, and I'm really convinced there's no possibility of someone pushing ethanol in good faith (i.e., for true policy reasons rather than crude vote-pandering).

Obama is likely to be just as bullish on ethanol if not much more so. He's already plugged it in a serious way.