In the wake of the historic passage of the Waxman -Markey climate change bill through the House, it’s important to think critically about where we stand, where we need to go, and how we can get there.
To start with: the bill itself. While it’s a miracle that the bill got passed through the House, and while passage through the Senate remains highly uncertain to say the least, the truth is that the bill suffered significantly to get it to where it is now:
- Overall emissions targets were watered down from 20% by 2020 to 17%, although the target still reaches 80% by 2050.
- Emissions permits were watered down from 85% auctioned off to 85% given away for free.
- Renewal energy requirements were watered down from 25% to 12% (by allowing efficiency offsets and gubernatorial waivers).
- and a number of other give-aways in terms of carbon offsets, agency oversight, and exemptions.
All of this was of course, sadly, necessary to get the bill past coal-state Congressmen (although there were some surprises here) who want to protect their district’s mines, farm-state Congressmen who wanted to keep the impact on agrobusiness light, and moderate to conservative Congressmen out to keep industry comfortable. While the instincts of some (namely, Greenpeace) were to jettison the bill, I think it serves as an excellent reminder that “the perfect isn’t the enemy of the good,” and a good lesson of how policy change actually works. Policy advances always start of small, incomplete, and disappointing; the trick to real change is mastering the process of yearly, gradual improvement through the amendment process, building up coalitions who can link up with congressional committees and bureaucracies and build some institutional muscle, and gradually turn the policy into something that can’t be eliminated or watered down.
Where Do We Need to Go?
Even given that Waxman-Markey is a first step, not a last step in the long road to actually dealing with the imperative of climate change reform, there is an enormous amoun of work that needs to be done in actually getting to where we need to go. Various groups have calculated that to just stabilize global temperatures at a reasonable level and ward off the worst effects of climate change, we’re talking about solutions that run from .5% to 3% of global GDP – even if we get lucky, and the number ends up being positive (i.e, more green jobs and industries created than costs imposed), we’re still talking about a tremendous transformation of our economies and societies – in which there will be vested interests who stand to lose big, and who will resist reform strongly.
Given that, it seems to me that the answer is less one big bill, leaning on one policy lever, but tons of bills, and tons of executive action, leaning on every policy lever imaginable. And given that the issue is so much about how we collectively use and price resources, and how people and goods are distributed and transported through space, it’s something that impacts huge numbers of policy areas – not just energy production and distribution, but also pollution emission, transportation, and housing policy, and so on. This obviously is not a new idea, but bear with me for a second.
I’ve been a fan of high-speed rail for a long time. Maybe it’s the working class vibe one gets from mass transit, maybe its my roots as a New Yorker growing up on the subway, or my pleasant experiences with high speed rail in Europe, but it’s always made sense to me. Both in terms of moving people away from driving or flying to mass transit and from reshaping patterns of residency from sprawling, car-bound suburbs to more heavily-developed transit corridors, high-speed rail is clearly a good idea, and I’m thrilled that California’s voters passed Prop 1A in November 2008.
At the same time, the push to increase fuel efficiency standards for cars and promote hybrid and electric cars has also made a lot of sense to me. Even in the best of possible outcomes, there are large parts of the U.S which will remain car-dependent for a long time, and there will still be a lot of industrial use of automobiles. Which makes it all the more sensible that, as we seek systemic improvements in creating new HSR networks, that we also seek to make our existing networks more energy-efficient and less carbon-intensive.
So we have trains and automobiles. But what about planes?
One Way to Fly The Friendly Skies
Planes are something of a missing link in our efforts to deal with climate change. Commercial air travel is huge – approximately 800 million people fly every year, and this number is projected to grow to 1.2 billion by 2020. These increasing numbers mean an increasing amount of carbon emissions. Although aviation is both relatively clean and efficient compared to other means of transport, there’s very little work being done to make airplanes into oil-and-emissions-free vehicles, even though it would seem an easy way to tackle 3.5% of global warming. Delta‘s got a plan to make their planes hybrids – but only for taxi-ing. Boeing thinks they can reduce greenhouse emissions by 60-80% by mixing algae with jet fuel, bu it’s still in the experimental stage. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of research into a jet-fuel/electric hybrid (although the surface area of a plane would suggest that solar panels, as well as the action of the turbines, could generate some serious energy) or electric planes (obviously, probably just for domestic commuter planes and puddle-jumpers at the moment).
The interesting thing is that there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of public policy on this issue – attention seems to have been drawn, naturally, more in the direction of energy production, home heating, and automotive transport. This would seem to be a huge opportunity, both for policymakers who no doubt would like to be the first onto a new environmental issue, and even to the airline industry, who get repeatedly hammered by spikes in oil prices. Certainly I know that promoting the building of new, hybrid fleets would win the support of the UAW and create some much needed jobs in the Pacific Northwest and Southern California, as well as potentially obviating the need for recurring airline bailouts.
So here’s a suggestion of where we could start:
- CAFE Standards for Air Fleets – here’s somewhere where the miles per gallon requirement could be gradually increased yearly, providing an incentive to make airplanes more fuel-efficient.
- Incentives for Domestic Production of Hybrid Plane Engines and Fuels – and here I’m talking about something more than just the usual array of tax breaks and subsidies that never seem to generate as much jobs as companies claim they will; I’m talking about specific contracts to build specific aircraft at particular plants, with built-in requirements in terms of workforce (and union-made, naturally).
- Government-Directed Research and Production– given that the U.S government has been in the business of building, buying, and flying planes for about a hundred years, there’s a huge amount of expertise in avionics collected within the government – in the FAA, in the Air Force, in DARPA, even in the Postal Service – that could be used to launch a public “yardstick” venture to keep the private avionics firms honest in their pursuit of more fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly civilian aircraft. In addition, I could see government-funded laboratories and factories in places like Southern California and the Pacific Northwest being the nucleus of a TVA-like effort to develop industry in economically-hard hit states, while pursuing public policy aims.