(By Steven J. Moss) â€œCap and tradeâ€ has become the rallying cry for many environmentalists seeking a solution to global climate change. Under a cap and trade approach, which is already widely employed as part of traditional air quality programs, limits would be imposed on the amount of greenhouse gases a polluter can emit.
“Cap and trade” has become the rallying cry for many environmentalists seeking a solution to global climate change. Under a cap and trade approach, which is already widely employed as part of traditional air quality programs, limits would be imposed on the amount of greenhouse gases a polluter can emit. Polluters who can reduce their emissions below their assigned cap can sell these “excess” reductions to those who exceed their limits. The idea is that businesses that can reduce their emissions at the least cost will do so first, to the benefit of everyone. While cap and trade schemes must be carefully crafted to be successful ”“ and the limits imposed must result in the needed emission reductions ”“ they can be an efficient way of achieving environmental goals.
What’s missing from cap and trade programs as currently used in domestic air quality programs is flexibility and community. In most cases trading across different types of polluting sources ”“ predominately stationary and mobile ”“ or different types of emissions ”“ such as particulate matter versus nitrogen oxide -- is prohibited. For example, a factory can’t get credit for reducing emissions by providing a free low emission shuttle which results in fewer employee car trips. This restriction constrains the pool of potential emission reduction strategies
Existing cap and trade programs likewise don’t provide ways for communities to participate in emission reduction efforts. For example, a city or a neighborhood can’t declare no-drive days, and sell the resulting pollution reductions in the emissions market. This limitation acts to wall-off grassroots efforts from obtaining economic gains by doing the right thing. Tons of polluting and greenhouse gas emissions (will) remain unabated as a result. And hard-pressed communities, which may have a disproportionate reliance on old, excessively polluting vehicles and be subjected to greater amounts of polluting activities, are locked-out of a potential source of much-needed revenue.
These weaknesses should be corrected in any domestic cap and trade programs adopted to address global climate change. A common market should be created for polluting air and greenhouse gas emission programs, in which trades can be made across all emissions sources and types. This can be accomplished through a few analytical steps.
A relative value would have to be assigned to a unit reduction for all “evil” emissions. For example, a unit reduction of particulate matter might be worth ten times a unit reduction of carbon dioxide based on the public health, environmental, and economic damage caused by the different molecules.
Emission reduction strategies, from smoke stack scrubbers to electrifying diesel motors could then be certified to result in a specific set of emission reductions. For instance, if a community turned in all its diesel-powered leaf blowers it would receive a pre-established emission credit per blower. These credits could then be sold on the emissions market, the proceeds to be invested in publicly-provided services. To guard against cheating, as well as address the difficulty of obtaining precise emission reduction estimates for a diverse set of actions, the reductions assigned to different activities could be discounted, with random audits imposed to ensure compliance with the paid for reduction strategy.
Enabling communities to participate in polluting air and greenhouse gas cap and trade markets would create a multitude of benefits. It would unlock a reservoir of small but cumulatively important emission reductions. It would enable communities, particularly low income ones, to generate much-needed revenues for public services. And perhaps most importantly, it would engage neighborhoods and individuals in what up until now has been widely considered an abstract problem about which there may be little we can do.