Research: Commentary

Obama: We May Need to Solve Climate Change in 'Chunks'

Grist , September 29, 2010 | Article

By Glenn Hurowitz

In a newly released interview, President Obama told Rolling Stone magazine that he wants to make energy and climate "one of my top priorities next year," but that "we may end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive legislation." Approached with resolve and creativity, this chunk approach has the potential to produce near and mid-term gains equal to or even surpassing those achieved by comprehensive climate legislation.

Indeed, as World Resources Institute noted in a recent study, a combination of EPA regulation and state action can reduce emissions somewhere between 6 and 14 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, depending on how ambitious these actions are. Of course, that's entirely inadequate when it comes to averting climate catastrophe -- we need to reduce pollution 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels just to have an even chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

So how can we bridge this gap even in the absence of federal climate legislation -- and in a way that's politically easy?

I’d like to highlight four low-hanging fruit solutions for the United States that would achieve dramatic reductions in climate pollution without climate legislation: tax credits for carbon sequestration, black carbon, F-gases, and international finance. Combined, these simple actions could allow the United States to produce climate benefits exceeding even that achieved by comprehensive climate legislation. Along with a broad clean energy agenda including energy efficiency and a renewable energy standard, they could make the green economy a reality for millions more Americans.

Cutting taxes, cutting pollution

I probably don't need to say that it's politically easier to pass tax cuts than new regulations. So how to leverage this political fact in the service of a safe climate?

One of the brightest possibilities is permanent tax credits for carbon sequestration through the protection and restoration of forests and wetlands and shifts to sustainable agriculture. These tax credits can pay enormous dividends at low cost: by helping reduce tropical deforestation, they'll cut the source of 15 of global carbon pollution, more than all the cars, trucks, ships, and planes in the world combined. Restoring forests -- the lungs of the Earth -- can suck additional carbon pollution out of the air. And shifts in agricultural practices can cut into the 15 percent of global emissions produced by ranching and farming.  At the same time, protection and restoration of these ecosystems is one of the most affordable ways to reduce pollution, costing less than half the amount of energy and transport sector improvements. Add it up and these tax credits can reduce net U.S. emissions by a third within just a few years -- all while cutting tax bills.

So how do they work? Landowners, companies, and others would be rewarded for planting trees (or protecting them in the case of tropical forests) with a tax credit of $10 to $20 per ton of carbon sequestered -- once they’ve demonstrated that they’d actually sequestered the carbon.

Because land-based carbon sequestration provides so many benefits, there’s an enormously powerful political consensus behind forest and agriculture as a solution to climate change. Farmers and landowners are eager to get credit for sequestering carbon on their land, companies see it as cost-effective, and environmentalists see this as a critical way to save forests and the global environment. Because of this consensus, cap-and-trade legislation awarded farmers, landowners, and companies carbon credit for forest conservation, planting trees, switching to organic agriculture, and other carbon sucking activities -- winning broad support for that section of the bill. This plan would just award a tax credit instead of a carbon credit. There’s actually a precedent for this type of tax incentive: Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) previously introduced the "International Carbon Conservation Act" to do just that.

Of course, a tax credit means, at least in the short run, less money going to the government (though it would also have a significant economic stimulus effect -- ecological restoration produces more jobs per dollar of investment than any other economic activity). In my view, a small increase in spending is worth the major environmental and jobs benefits. But for the deficit hawks in Congress, there are lots of options for offsetting these tax credits with other measures.

The annual Green Scissors report by Taxpayers for Common Sense and several environmental groups recommends cutting $200 billion per year from the federal budget in wasteful, environmentally damaging spending like subsidies for logging in the Tongass National Forest and billions in U.S. backed World Bank lending for overseas projects that burn coal. Cutting just one-tenth the amount recommended by Green Scissors would fully finance these tax credits. 

From a political perspective, these tax credits have three very powerful constituencies: 1) All taxpayers 2) Major companies looking to reduce their tax burden while doing something good for the environment 3) Landowners, farmers, ranchers, and the forest products industry (these groups will be eligible for tax credits for reforestation or agricultural changes on their own land; organizations such as the National Farmers Union, the American Forest and Paper Association, the National Alliance of Forest Owners, United Steelworkers, and many others have already been advocates for protection of tropical forests and cracking down on illegal logging as a way to level the playing field by ensuring products on the global market don't come from deforestation.)

In addition to the tax credits, there are two important additional steps the government can take to dramatically reduce carbon emissions through land use change. First, fully fund the Obama administration’s annual appropriation requests for tropical forests and other "sustainable landscapes." This funding, while modest at a few hundred million dollars, is essential to getting a jump start on saving forests, and could cut emissions by one hundreds million tons or more.

Finally, Congress and the administration can commit to full funding and enforcement of the Lacey Act, which prohibits importation of forest products and other goods from illegal logging or forest clearing, and is strongly supported by both the forest products industry and environmentalists. A recent report from the U.K.’s Chatham House found that over the past 10 years, reductions in illegal logging produced a one billion ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions with similar or greater gains possible in the future. According to my sources, Congress and the Obama administration for some reason can’t find the paltry $5 to $10 million needed to enforce this important law in a comprehensive fashion.

Black carbon

Black carbon, or soot, is produced by many sources, including burning of forests, burning of charcoal and wood for cooking, and diesel. It’s a problem for the climate because the black soot particles are just the right color to absorb heat from the sun, either in the upper atmosphere or when it settles back down to earth on Arctic snow and ice (when soot-free, the polar ice caps reflect a tremendous amount of light and heat back into Space, helping keep the planet cool). Extra heat absorption caused by black carbon accounts for about 18 percent of the total heating of the planet, compared to 40 percent for the much more notorious carbon dioxide.

There are three relatively easy ways to reduce black carbon (other than reducing burning of tropical forests):

    Clean up diesel trucks, ships, and planes: Although cleaning up diesel -- or switching to clean electric powered transportation altogether -- does require investments, the gains are generally extremely affordable. EPA estimates that its Bush-era regulations on diesel will cut black carbon emissions about 42 percent by 2020. But more can be done -- adding simple filters to diesel engines and further EPA action could cut the U.S. contribution to black carbon to near zero. Congress can help by fully funding the $1.7 billion backlog in requests for diesel retrofits EPA now faces.

    Provide funds for solar cookers and other low-carbon cooking methods to developing countries: Not only will this reduce pollution from black carbon, it will also reduce the 1.9 million premature deaths worldwide that come from indoor cooking pollution. Though more could definitely be done, the United States is starting to take some important steps to address this problem: Hillary Clinton announced this week that the United States would contribute $10 million per year for five years to provide clean cooking stoves.

    Support international action to reduce the use of black carbon fuels: The United States can support international agreements to limit the use of black carbon, including providing incentives for developing countries to reduce the use of wood stoves; in addition, this should be one of the major targets of international climate finance efforts.


These gases (the most common of which are HFCs) are ultrapowerful greenhouse gases, with thousands of times more heat trapping power than carbon dioxide. They’re widely used in the United States and some other countries as coolants in refrigeration and air conditioners. When released into the air, they float into the upper atmosphere, where they stay for up to 260 years and rapidly warm the planet. By 2050, they could account for 50 percent of total heating of the planet, due in large part to growth in use in the developing world.

Refrigerators sold in Europe generally don’t contain these highly dangerous chemicals (they use much safer and simpler substances like propane and butane), but until recently they were unavailable in the United States and ignored by some developing world countries. GE has applied to bring a climate friendly refrigerator to the United States -- but has been waiting a long time for EPA approval; snappy EPA action could allow Americans the opportunity to buy bring green refrigerators in to their homes.

Micronesia and Mauritius, two low-lying island nations that are highly vulnerable to climate change induced sea level rise, have proposed aggressively phasing out the use of HFC’s, and were recently joined by the United States. Banning previous generations of F-gases such as CFCs is the equivalent of keeping 11 billion metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Using the United States diplomatic heft to implement this plan would pay huge dividends.

International finance

There have been several proposals for coming up with the $100 billion pledged by rich countries to reduce deforestation, finance a clean technology revolution in developing countries, and help people and wildlife adapt to the impacts of climate change. There are a number of great ideas, such as a fee on highly polluting transportation fuels and a small "Tobin tax" on international financial transactions. But the one with perhaps the greatest potential for getting the political support it needs is the one that provides enormous funding without taking on any entrenched interest -- the International Monetary Fund’s ingenious Green Fund proposal. The core idea is to provide a base of financing by taking advantage of "Special Drawing Rights," a obscure currency issued by the IMF and given to countries to provide them additional foreign exchange -- but which is rarely used by developed countries. Countries could donate or lend a portion of these Special Drawing Rights (SDR) to the Green Fund. Just $120 billion worth of these SDRs could provide enough equity to leverage spending of $40 billion per year. Furthermore, these funds can be supplemented by using the IMF’s $100 billion in excess gold reserves to guarantee the initial loans, thereby eliminating the risk to developed country governments.

Like other climate finance options, money from the Green Fund can be awarded to developing countries on a strict pay-for-performance basis, with funds going to developing countries once they’ve delivered demonstrated emissions reductions (or, in the case of loans, as a binding requirement for loans).

Apparently, the United States has done little to advance these proposals, caught up in internal bureaucratic wrangling. Enthusiastic support would be a way for the United States to restore its credibility in the eyes of the world and environmentalists at home -- while truly kick-starting the green economy and providing hope for a baking planet desperate for American action.

Andrew Stevenson of Climate Advisers assisted with the research for this article.

Glenn Hurowitz is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. You can follow his Twitter feed about forests, climate, and wildlife: @glennhurowitz.

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