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  • Writer's pictureTom Mast

Congressional Commission: Blueprint for Attainable Control of U.S. Greenhouse Gases

Tom Mast, founder Solve American Gridlock

This paper advocates creating an independent Congressional Commission of experts in climate science, economics, and other necessary fields to craft a U.S. Blueprint based on emissions pricing to gain control over its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It includes brief background reviews of several topics one must grasp in order to see the necessity for a Commission.


The graph above has some key messages. The most important is that the U.S. is not making anything like good progress on its mitigation of GHSs. Secondly, it shows the relative importance of various GHGs and that carbon dioxide is easily the primary problem.


Greenhouse gases accumulate in our atmosphere and restrict the radiation of heat from the earth back into space, causing global temperatures to rise slowly and adversely affect the climate. Even if the world were to cease emitting GHGs tomorrow, their negative effects would diminish very slowly. Why? Carbon dioxide (CO₂) dissipates over 300-1000 years (per NASA). Methane is a more powerful GHG, but dissipates much faster. Carbon dioxide receives most of our attention because we emit much more of it than the other gases and because its effects are so long-lasting. CO₂ comes mainly from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) for energy to do work and for heating. It only takes looking briefly at the EPA’s chart below to know that there are literally millions of human activities that affect the amount of CO₂ put into the atmosphere!


The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 set a target of a global temperature rise above pre-industrial level of 2⁰ C with a strong recommendation of a 1.5⁰ C cap. The November 5, 2022 Economist makes the case that an increase of about 1.2⁰ C has already been reached and that the 1.5⁰ goal is now unattainable. Three points are important: First, the amount of temperature increase needed to cause much pain and damage is very small, second procrastination has already made the task more difficult, and third it is past time to quit bickering about the exact target and to take effective actions.


Emissions pricing, often called carbon pricing, is the market-based way to move emissions reduction decisions away from centralization and into the brains of millions of people. How would it work? The government enacts legislation for carbon pricing based on the Congressional Commission’s Blueprint described below. The pricing is a government fee/tax imposed on substances like coal, oil, natural gas, methane, refrigerants, etc. The charge is imposed as near the entry point of the substance into the economy as practicable, perhaps at the wellhead, refinery, or mine. The company paying this charge can be counted on to pass along its extra costs in the form of higher prices, and this continues all the way down to the consumer who will ultimately pay more without having anyone else from whom to recover his or her costs. The consumer’s final cost will include, say for a food item, all the emissions costs of farming or fishing including machinery, fuels, and fertilizers; transportation to markets, refrigeration, cooking, and much more. For example, the price of fish might rise more than that of chicken due to its being more emissions/energy intensive resulting in less fuel being burned in fishing vessels and trucking to markets. Similar things happen to the consumers’ costs of heating, air conditioning, size of home, clothing, automobile, and more.


Emissions/carbon prices will increase regularly, perhaps annually. At the same time, the consumer will begin to notice painful prices in certain items and begin selecting substitutes. This process will not be sudden, so consumers will have transparency and some predictability about future pricing for their household planning. Similarly, producers and others in the supply chain will be able to plan for the future, something that is almost impossible with our present legislation against global warming.


The sum of all the charges by the government will be substantial. Since the government will have almost no costs to offset this revenue, it should be returned to the public. Thus, the government will not be taking these large chunks of money out of the economy each year. It makes sense to return these monies to consumers, making the carbon pricing much more palatable. Even if consumers receive approximately the amount of money their costs have risen, that still doesn’t keep them from having the incentive to pocket the savings that trading a gasoline car for an electric one might bring.


Carbon/emissions pricing is based on increases in the rate each year. For example, perhaps in the second year, the price rises from say $50/ton of carbon dioxide equivalent to $55/ton. But, as the costs rise for consumers, they will be changing their buying habits, buying less of the emissions/carbon-intensive substances. The producers of the substances will pay the higher rate or $55/ton, but on lower volumes. AND my friends, that is what it is all about! A steady, predictable, efficient, and relatively painless reduction in the amount of these substances being produced and converted into greenhouse gases!


One huge advantage that predictability and visibility brings is a schedule for the replacement technologies, many of which need to be accelerated. Examples include solving the intermittency of solar and wind electrical energy, accelerating the development and rollout of Small Nuclear Reactors, massive sourcing of electric automobile batteries materials, and on and on.


Let’s take a quick look at Sweden’s carbon pricing history.


Carbon Pricing in Sweden



Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission


Carbon pricing works in Sweden

Apr 11, 2018


First out of the gate

Sweden introduced the one of the world’s first carbon taxes as part of a larger environmental reform in 1991. They started small – about €33 per tonne ($52 CDN) – and worked their way up to €120 per tonne ($188 CDN), which is the highest rate in the world.

It’s important to note that the introduction of Sweden’s carbon tax was part of a larger policy package to reduce emissions. They also use energy taxes (on electricity, for example), efficiency standards, congestion pricing, and have invested heavily in renewable energy and public transit. So how do we untangle the impact of carbon pricing on Sweden’s emissions? Several economic studies have taken that on, and the results show carbon pricing was a major contributor to emissions reductions.


Sweden’s carbon tax reduced GHG emissions

The impacts of Sweden’s carbon tax have grown over time. By 1995, emissions were 15% lower than they would have been without the carbon tax. By 2000, emissions were as much as 25% lower than they would have been without the carbon tax.


We should note that Sweden’s emissions actually rose for the first half of the 1990s. But that doesn’t mean the carbon tax wasn’t working. This is a really important distinction. We need to measure where emissions would be without the tax, not just if they’re lower overall. Even when emissions were rising, Sweden’s carbon tax was changing behaviour.


The good news is that Sweden’s emissions did begin to fall overall after 1996. And aside from a few hiccups, it’s been a fairly steady decline.




Sweden reduced emissions while growing its economy

While Sweden’s emissions curve has bent downward, their economy has performed well. The numbers and the evidence show that the carbon tax hasn’t been a barrier to a strong economy. In fact, Sweden’s GDP growth has outpaced the European average by a significant margin.


CANADA – This is an excellent article, replete with several short, punchy videos!

(Excerpted from the article above)

And there is strong evidence, grounded in solid economics and policy experience, that carbon pricing works.


Done right, carbon pricing changes household and business behaviour, reduces GHG emissions, and drives the development and adoption of the technologies that will play a key role in a low-carbon economy.


The evidence is clear: carbon pricing shifts us away from "business as usual," changing our emissions trajectory. And higher carbon prices drive deeper emissions reduction.

In addition (and this point is also often overlooked), carbon pricing will achieve these outcomes at a lower economic cost than other policies. Together, this means carbon pricing can support both a clean economy and a prosperous one. It achieves these goals by changing incentives and unleashing market forces. It lets businesses and individuals identify the best ways to reduce their GHG emissions and at the times and places that are right for them. And it doesn’t require governments to identify specific ways to reduce GHG emissions.


Note that GHGs aren’t just about carbon dioxide. They also include methane, nitrous oxide, and many other gases that collect in Earth’s atmosphere and act like the walls of a greenhouse to lock in heat, raising average global temperatures. Policies that “put a price on carbon” are really designed to put a price on all the major GHGs, wherever feasible.


Why should the U.S. institute emission/carbon pricing

to diminish greenhouse gas emissions?


  • It is an almost transparent way to let market forces incent businesses and consumers to make rational and timely decisions that will cut GHG emissions.

  • It gives families and industry visibility to plan changes.

  • It enrolls everyone in the fight against climate change.

  • It sets a model for the U.S. to show globally.

  • It breaks the partisan and fragmented approach the U.S. has taken to date. It frees political time and resources to work on solving other problems.

  • It works! If anything since 1991, America’s emissions have increased slightly while Sweden’s have decreased over 25%. If only we could turn back the clock!


Blueprint


OK, if we need emissions/carbon pricing as the basic overall mechanism to reduce our GHG emissions, how do we go about implementing it? What fees on emissions do we impose? How fast should they increase? How do we handle the fact that different grades of petroleum ultimately produce different amounts of carbon dioxide? What is the procedure for making minor course corrections over time? How do we balance the size of the fees needed for progress in combatting GHGs with the cost to society of switching sources of energy over a fairly short time? How many decades should the Blueprint cover? What is the fairest way to return the total amount of the fees to the citizens? What time values of money should be used in comparing near-term costs and benefits with those decades out? How do we decide which technologies and methods are well known enough to be incorporated into the plan and which are not because they need to be financed for further research, but not assumed to be viable now?


The questions above are a tiny fraction of those to be considered in moving forward with emissions/carbon pricing. They must be answered and integrated into a Blueprint by the foremost experts with the proper areas of expertise. They raise very complex issues. See our previous paper describing the emissions reduction project as dwarfing the Panama Canal project in every way; it is the mother of all projects.


Should there be any doubt that something needs to be done, see the graph below of global emissions. This is clearly a global problem, but we need to implement a well-crafted plan before we can be convincing to other countries.



The Blueprint should provide all the scientific and economic detail in a way that it can easily be wrapped into legislation by Congress. It should provide annual fees for emissions substances with clear indication of the best point in the value chain for imposing them. It should provide annual estimates of GHG emissions. It should provide advance warning of the weaker spots in technologies, raw materials, industry capabilities, etc. Promising technologies not yet well enough understood or immature will be highlighted with recommendations and their possible long-range potentials against GHG emissions. And much, much more. The point is that the expertise to draft the Blueprint resides primarily outside Congress and for the most part outside the government. The amount of research that has already been done on the areas necessary to construct the Blueprint is staggering. It is time to put all this documented knowledge to work.


Two valuable references to the complexity of the science and economics are:


  • The Climate Casino; Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World, by William Nordhaus

  • How the World Really Works; The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going, by Vaclav Smil


Congressional Commission

Summary from R40076 on Congressional Commissions.pdf

Excerpts included in the text below


“Congressional advisory commissions are formal groups established to provide independent advice; to make recommendations for changes in public policy; to study or investigate a particular problem, issue, or event; or to commemorate an individual, group, or event. While no legal definition exists for what constitutes a congressional commission, this report defines a congressional commission as a multimember independent entity that (1) is established by Congress, (2) exists temporarily, (3) serves in an advisory capacity, (4) is appointed in whole or in part by Members of Congress, and (5) reports to Congress.”


“Throughout American history, Congress has found commissions to be useful entities in the legislative process. By establishing a commission, Congress can potentially provide a highly visible forum for important issues and assemble greater expertise than may be readily available within the legislature. Commissions can allow for the examination of complex policy issues over a longer period and in greater depth than may be practical for legislators. Finally, the nonpartisan or bipartisan character of most congressional commissions may make their findings and recommendations more politically acceptable, both in Congress and among the public.”


“Since the 101st Congress (1989-1990), Congress has established over 160 congressional commissions.”


We can quickly see that Congressional Commissions seem to be tailor-made for producing a Blueprint to gain control over our greenhouse gases. They have been used at a rate of over five per year for the past thirty years, so they are a familiar tool.


LET’S ASK CONGRESS TO FORM A CONGRESSIONAL COMMISSION TO CREATE THIS

Blueprint for Attainable Control of U.S. Greenhouse Gases

AND ENACT IT INTO LEGISLATION.

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