Tuesday, 19 February 2013

How Not Not to Fix Climate Change

I'm trying to make some sense of Joe Nocera's climate change article in today's NYT. Here's the meat of his argument, I think:

so long as the demand is there, energy producers are going to search for new supplies of fossil fuel — many of them using unconventional means like tar sands extraction. “With growing global demand, the economic pressure to develop unconventional resources is enormous and not going away,” he said. “Can environmental groups expect to win a series of fights for decades to come, when the economic forces are aligned very strongly against them in each round?” The answer is obvious: no. The emphasis should be on demand, not supply. If the U.S. stopped consuming so much of the world’s oil, the economic need for the tar sands would evaporate.
If I'm understanding correctly, Nocera believes that it's futile to try to prevent the production and distribution of tar sands oil because demand is so high. But why? History is full of examples of governments enacting and enforcing environmental protection standards to inhibit or slow production not just in spite of but in response to high demand for some product. That is because the very fact that there's high demand necessitates the enforcement of constraints so as to ensure that its production doesn't come at the cost of ecological damage. It would be nonsensical to attempt to implement limits on production only for things for which there was no demand. And in fact if we effectively forbid or constrain the production of tar sands oil the demand is mitigated exactly because we've increased the costs to reflect actual costs to society.

Nocera then goes on to attack the notion of a carbon tax: "He [James E. Hansen] told me he would like to see oil companies pay a fee, which would rise annually, based on carbon emissions. He said that such a tax could reduce emissions by 30 percent within 10 years. Well, maybe. But it would also likely make the expensive tar sands oil more viable."

But why would it? Production of tar sands oil generates more emissions, so, in fact, a carbon tax doesn't make tar sand oil more viable. Relative to other energy sources it would be affected more heavily by a carbon tax.

Finally, Nocera argue, " If you really want to eliminate expensive new fossil fuel sources, the best way is to lower the price of oil, which would render them uneconomical." Setting aside the question of how we go about lowering the price of oil without opening up new supplies like the tar sands, the problem with this suggestion is that it increases demand and emissions while decreasing the oil supply. This, of course, will force us to look more quickly to alternate sources, like the tar sands.  The solution to a problem caused by the overconsumption of oil can't be steps that are likely to further increase the consumption of oil.