Focus on Innovators, Not Polluters, for Climate Solutions

by | Jun 17, 2009

andy-mannle-mugThe Waxman-Markey bill trickling its way through Congress is both historic and problematic. As loopholes are inserted, and interests appeased, the bill will inevitably get watered down to something that is both more passable, and less effective. While the eventual result may be the best we can get out of this Congress, do we risk missing the forest for the trees by framing the debate around the “problem” of carbon?

It’s time to focus on science of solutions, instead of the politics of pollution.

The “Copenhagen Call” recently signed by 500 global business leaders calls for a “science-based approach” to climate change, and “immediate & substantial” reductions in carbon emissions.

The reason is simple: business leaders like certainty, and they know politicians are fickle. Only by taking a science-based approach can we overcome the interest groups and election cycles of individual nations and craft global goals for addressing climate change. Staying focused on the problem keeps us mired in conflicting agendas, technical details, complex regulatory schemes, and piles of “carbon credits” that we can price and trade for the next 30 years without making a dent in the very real challenges we face.

While a “market-based solution” sounds like a good approach, the solutions for climate change will come from science, not the market. In short, we don’t need a market cap on carbon so much as we need scalable, market-ready alternatives.

The whole point of cap and trade is to create the market conditions necessary for viable clean energy at a massive scale. So why don’t we cut to the chase and simply provide those market conditions directly?

We can’t just make the pollution business harder, we need to create a better business for polluters to be in. By direct investment in efficiency, solar, wind, grid R&D, new batteries, etc., we could potentially find solutions faster than the indirect process of forcing the private market to transition by making polluters feel the pain of a carbon cap.

For all the protest about cap and trade, the reason companies are getting on board is because the “pollution paradigm” keeps attention focused on them. If we weren’t auctioning permits, we’d simply be taxing pollution.

Everyone says that’s politically unviable – if the tax were low enough, and applied evenly across the board it could potentially generate less confusion, less resistance, and more money for the actual solutions we need.

Striking the proper balance between science and the market requires understanding the relationship they both share with technology. While science describes the cycles of cause and effect in the environment, technology is how that science is put into action. And markets are how that technology makes a difference in our lives. Thus markets do not create new science, but science has frequently created new markets by developing better technology.

That’s why we need to invest in R&D. While Obama’s budget called for $15 billion a year for ten years, the Waxman-Markey bill has chipped out those teeth by giving away the permits that would have raised the money. The stimulus package provides $65 billion over two years. But didn’t we just spend nearly a trillion dollars bailing out Wall Street and the auto industry? How much will it cost to bail out the climate of the entire planet? An order of magnitude more.

It’s time to realize that government can do more than prop up banks and auto industries to avoid economic collapse – it can invest directly in REAL climate solutions to avoid global environmental collapse and the political chaos that will follow. And just as military investments gave us freeways and the Internet, bringing the full weight of government investment and R&D to this challenge can help create new climate solutions, and bring to market the many clean-energy technologies that already exist.

The pain of pricing carbon is minimal compared to the boost our economy will get by becoming a leading exporter of clean energy technology. But the pain of taking little or no action will be both economic and political. Whatever form the bill takes it will certainly send an important signal – but if the targets are too weak then we could undermine our leverage with China, and undercut efforts being made in Europe. It could be an albatross, not a bargaining chip.

At the end of the day, it will be hard to call the Waxman-Markey bill a success if it represents merely a political achievement, while “offsetting” actual results. Keeping our attention, policies, and budgets focused on developing and implementing solutions is critical if we are to relegate carbon pollution and carbon taxes to the scrap heap of the past.

Andy Mannle is Senior Editor of Mannle also serves as strategic communications consultant for a variety of green businesses, media outlets and environmental organizations.

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