Sunday, April 8, 2007

Ten Recommendations to deal with global warming

There are many things we can all do to reduce our contributions to global warming. Here are ten things politians can do now to make a difference:

1. Tax energy supply that adds extra heat to global warming and use the money to subsidize energy supply that doesn't.

2. Stop supporting conventional power plants. Don't give them research grants or subsidies. Don't give them regulatory privileges or allow them to monopolize a market. If they go broke under the new regime of taxes, then good riddance. Instead, support renewables such as wind farms, solar power, hydro-electricity and wave power.

3. Sign the Kyoto Treaty and make a firm commitment to reduce emissions by a lot more. Work on a new global Treaty beyond Kyoto, using these ten points as a basis.

4. Support lifestyles that are more environmentally-friendly. Encourage use of the Internet as an alternative to travel and commuting. Encourage homeschooling and working from home. Deregulate taxi services.

5. Ban incandescent light bulbs. Set a date for a national ban. Actively promote a global ban.

6. Support energy that doesn't add extra heat more actively in regulations and government policy. Encourage competition and diversity among suppliers of such energy. Encourage interconnection and overlap of electricity grids, so that households can choose which grid to sell electricity to, if they generate a surplus in their backyard.

7. Plan communities without roads and with footpaths and bikepaths instead. Plan houses close together, around a local center of shops and restaurants. Redesign existing cities so that people have to travel less.

8. Tax the sale of meat and use the money to support vegetarian restaurants, bicycle shops and other environmentally-friendly outlets in communities without roads.

9. Make government act more environmentally responsible. Ask for ideas. Have more staff work from home. Look at ways to offer services over the phone, over the Net, etc.

10. Disclosure. Make that government departments and large companies publicly disclose their emissions of greenhouse gases. Make products display on their packaging the amounts of greenhouse gases needed to produce it.

Sam Carana

Editor's note: This is a duplicate of the April 8, 2007, post that followed Ten Dangers of global warming. The post was followed up by Recommendations to deal with global warming and by Comprehensive Plan of Action.  

Friday, April 6, 2007

Global Warming - cap and trade or tax?

The US Supreme Court ruled on April 2nd that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must limit greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide.

Four Bills are now under discussion in the Senate that would instruct the EPA to set caps on greenhouse gas emissions and allow for trading of permits, so that those who do better than their allocated target can sell their "surplus" to those who fail to do so.

The problem with permits is that, if they are given away for free to existing polluters, that would be like rewarding them for the pollution they make. Alternatively, permits could be auctioned off, or there could be a mix. e.g. with a progressively larger proportion of permits to be auctioned off.

There remains a problem with trading in that it mainly seems to benefit polluters. Polluters who reduce their emissions will benefit, so there's a clear incentive for them to do so, but a wind farm that didn't generate greenhouse gases to start with will not get or need any permits, and it therefore wouldn't benefit from selling any "surplus" - it didn't get anything to sell, nor will it need to buy any permits. Trading in permits appears to leave the profits of such trade in the hands of a group of polluters and those feeding on them.

Instead, emissions could simply be taxed. Whether permits are auctioned or emissions are taxed, the key question is who will get the revenues. One thing that should be avoided is that such revenues will merely be used to assist the poor with paying their higher energy bills. If that would be the case, then no gain would be achieved at all. If the rich can afford to pay higher prices, and the poor get subsidies, then nothing will change in terms of pollution. Instead of taxing the rich and handing the money over to the poor, as in the old socialist motto, we should adopt a new motto, i.e. tax energy suppliers who pollute and give it to suppliers who don't. Indeed, it makes sense to reward suppliers of energy most who pollute least. A more blunt position would be that only suppliers of energy should get subsidized that do not add extra heat, i.e. those who don't add extra heat should get all the subsidies, while those who do should not be subsidized at all.

Such a combination of tax and subsidies would result in a shift away from supply of energy that contributes to global warming on the one hand, towards supply in energy that doesn't contribute to global warming on the other hand. Tax the first group and give the money to the second group! Because money is merely passed from one group to the other, there is no risk of a budget blow-out. The money is all accounted for, if the money that's raised is simply passed on in the form of subsidies.

Taxes could be set at rates to achieve certain aims. If taxes are too low and buying polluting energy is still relatively cheaper than non-polluting energy, then the tax rate will simply have to be raised to cause a quicker shift.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

What characterizes our Times?

What characterizes our Times? I recently asked friends to name things that were most characteristic of the times we live in now. Here's the top ten answers I got.

1. Global Warming

Global warming and climate change loom large as challenges faced by everyone on Earth. Will this unite the world into taking a joint approach to combat the problems? Or will it divide the world? We seem to have moved beyond an earlier split between those who acknowledged and those who denied the need for action. The issue now is how to implement action.

2. Terrorism

The US has troops all over the world, but who is the enemy? Wars used to be fought between countries. Nowadays. conflicts are fought out between groups within a country. The question is whether such conflicts can be contained within a country. Fears are that terrorists will increasingly strike globally to make their point.

3. Globalisation

McDonalds restaurants are everywhere, all over the world. You can walk through shopping malls anywhere in the world and there's little difference. Shoe shops in such malls were made in China, designed in the US, carry an Italian brand name, while the profits go to a bank account on the Bermudas. Trade has more and more global aspects and there's no indication that this trend is reversing.

4. Air travel

Not only is trade going global, people are becoming mobile globetrotters, backpackers holding multiple passports. In the old days, only travelers, sailors and pilgrims had stories to tell about distant countries (migrants don't count, they traveled one way only!) Nowadays, tourists, diplomats, business people and students all fly happily abroad, to return within weeks, sometimes days. People love to fly. Despite the threat of terrorism and despite the concerns for global warming, airlines keep moving more people between cities, countries and continents. As airports become the hub of modern society, entire cities start emerging around them.

5. Competition

It's the economy, stupid! It's some politicians’ favorite phrase. Finance, free trade, deregulation and competition policy seem to dominate the agenda in many newspapers. Demographic changes, immigration and changes in lifestyle have huge impacts on the economy, making many people call for political action. Are we now living in the Economic Society? With communism in retreat, has economics and competition policy become the dominant ideology?

6. Urbanization

In what must count as the biggest population moves in history, a large part of China's rural population has moved to settle in cities along the coastline. Urbanization is happening all over the world. Big cities keep on growing, while rural areas become less-densely populated. Does the city skyline most symbolize modern times?

7. Drug-resistant diseases

AIDS, Avian influenza, TB and other bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics. Some pretty scary pictures emerge on TV from time to time, as diseases break out in one part of the world. In today's global society with growing international air-travel, it seems ever harder to stop new diseases from crossing borders and spreading globally.

8. Science and Technology

All over the world, science and technology changes people's lives at ever more rapid pace. New diseases call for new medical technology. With more old people than ever populating most countries, the market for new drugs and cures seems insatiable. Old people seek to extend their lives, while young people may face the challenge of infertility. Genetic engineering and bio-technology promise plants to cope with climate change and yield higher crops for food and bio-fuel. Nowhere is the impact of technology more apparent than in the merging areas of computers and communications. Smart people now carry smartphones, complete with camera, Internet access and GPS. Will the Internet turn all of us into scientists?

9. Power of the individual

In the old days, people felt part of their family, of the place where they worked, of a trade union and the same people they met every day. They had the same friends since they went to school together. Nowadays, people move more frequently, out of these traditional networks. Families have become small, rather than extended. One person can run a company from home. All this empowers the individual. The challenge is for people to find things to identify with and ways to interconnect and have a social life.

10. Decreasing relevance of the Nation-State

Are international treaties making the nation-state irrelevant? Given that all the above points reflect global issues that seem to cross national borders with increasing ease, does this mean the end of the nation-state?

Indeed, I wonder if others who compiled a list of ten issues that most characterized our times would come up with many different issues. Seen in this light, is the nation-state the best instrument to tackle the challenges posed by all these issues?

Can we rely on political systems that were designed to put the interest of the nation first, to adequately deal with problems of a global nature? Can we rely on national politics to solve global problems? Worse, is the rise in prominence of all these global issues perhaps the result of an over-reliance on national politics?

If national politics is indeed in decline, what will replace it? Localism? World Government? Chaos and anarchy? Dog-eat-dog? Global politics? The latter is an oxymoron as long as politics remains inherently national. Perhaps the biggest challenge of our times is to find coherent ways of dealing with global problems, without delegating that task to national politicians and without relying too much on the Nation-State model of politics to solve those problems. We need to come up with modern responses to modern problems. How can we claim to promote competition in the light of a declining bio-diversity? How can the Internet create new ways of politics, such as digital voting, opinion polling and lodging protests? We need all the imagination of webdesigners, writers, film producers, artists and product designers to visualize, articulate and otherwise express ideas, using the media of our times to point at solutions that fit our times. Let's redesign politics to fit our modern times.

Sam Carana