Climate policy cont’d: Obama talking the talk

Barack Obama must have read the Jonathan Alter article in Newsweek, or maybe he shared the back of a taxi with Peter Barnes. Whatever the cause for his conversion, he’s now speaking a bit of the gospel.

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama on Monday called for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent of the 1990 level by 2050. His proposal would force power companies and other businesses to pay for all their pollution.

He proposed a modified “cap and trade” approach to reducing emissions that would require businesses to buy allowances to pollute, creating an incentive to reduce energy usage.

Under a traditional cap and trade system, power plants or businesses that exceed pollution caps must buy or trade for additional capacity, generally from plants that have taken steps to reduce their emissions. Unlike some of his rivals, Obama said he would auction all allowances rather than grandfathering some to big emitters such as oil and coal companies.

“No business will be allowed to emit any greenhouse gases for free,” he said. “Businesses don’t own the sky, the public does, and if we want them to stop polluting it, we have to put a price on all pollution.”

Sweetness. Of course, Obama is still listed as a co-sponsor of Lieberman’s “big business owns the sky, so give allowances for free to the big emitters” bill, so we’ll have to see what he does in terms of walking the walk. But for all my cynicism, hearing the right talk is an unexpected pleasure.

Meanwhile, I’m surprised to see this statement in the Washington Post “campaign 2008” blog:

Most legislation offered to reduce carbon emissions takes this form [cap total emissions and allow trading of allowances within that limit], even though many economists believe a carbon tax would be simpler, if more difficult to sell politically.

Which “most” economists are they talking about? When you have a specific target you are trying to reach, taxes are a blunt and inaccurate instrument. Plenty of the nerdiest economists can whip up a quick model to show how a cap-and-trade system is more economically efficient (using the terms of market economics) than a tax system in this kind of scenario. Maybe someone needs to do a survey of economists or something. Anyhow, I badmouthed Congress the other day for being (or acting willfully) ignorant of simple economic principles.* But now, if the Washington Post is right, I’ve got to badmouth “most economists” and give credit to the politicians for getting this one right.

*”which is so Econ 101 it’s plain pathetic that most of Congress seems to be dismissing it out of hand

One comment

  • Nice to see Peter Dorman at EconoSpeak on this topic as well. He raises an issue that I’ve been failing to mention, that per-person distribution of the money from auctioning permits is good for another reason: “Economically, this is necessary to protect real incomes and avoid a dangerous contraction of consumer demand. (The higher energy prices we will be paying under any reasonable cap will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.)”